Gerald Bull is a prime example of a man who created his own luck—unfortunately for him most of it was bad. A brilliant and distinguished artillery engineer, Bull spent much of his life in the upper echelons of government-funded weapons research. Though his career took him down a convoluted and often difficult path, he devoted his professional life to a single-minded pursuit of his dream: to build a gun large enough to shoot satellites into orbit.
Bull nearly single-handedly resurrected the science of supergun artillery, and in so doing played a major role in 2 wars. But Bull’s confrontational style and brusque manner won him very few friends within the governments for which he worked. His poor networking skills combined with a near total disregard for the dangerous politics in which he meddled led to heavy fines, a short stint in prison, and ultimately, to his assassination.
Gerald Bull was born in Ontario, Canada in 1928 and earned his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1951—the youngest ever to do so. He spent his early career working for the Canadian and US governments doing research in supersonic flight as well as supergun artillery.
His first job was working for the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment (CARDE) research facility where he suggested that large artillery be used to test models at supersonic speeds. He argued that because supersonic wind tunnels were expensive to build and operate, a large gun would accomplish the task much more efficiently. His project was funded, built, and operated until its cancellation in 1956. Despite later being promoted to head of the aerospace department in 1958, he was forced to leave CARDE in 1960 because of a variety of both public and private conflicts with his superiors.
Bull moved next to McGill University where he quickly interested the US government in his ideas. With money from both the Pentagon and the Canadian government, Bull established the High Altitude Research Project (HARP). Over the next seven years, HARP built a succession of larger and larger guns with ever-increasing capabilities. By the time the Canadian government pulled out of HARP in 1967 in protest of the Vietnam War, Bull had managed to launch shells more than 60 miles into sub-orbital space.
Embittered by what he viewed as premature cancellations of two very promising projects, Bull went into business for himself. He managed to transfer the HARP gun to his private company, the Space Research Corporation (SRC), on the Quebec/Vermont border before leaving the government project entirely. Bull and the SRC limped along on a variety of small US and Canadian arms contracts until, in the mid-1970s, their first big contract came along.
With the help of the CIA, Bull landed a contract to supply the South African government with 30,000 artillery shells, artillery barrels, and plans for an advanced Howitzer called the GC-45. His help was considered by some to be vital in South Africa’s ultimate victory over Angola in that war. But, after President Carter came to office in 1976 Bull was arrested by the UN in South Africa for illegal arms dealing and, as per the terms of his plea, served six months in a US penitentiary in 1980.
After his release, Bull continued to improve his Howitzer designs for the South African company Armscor. The end product was the G5 Howitzer that is capable of firing rounds over 30 miles. It was then—and remains today—one of the most advanced pieces of artillery in the world. But at home in Quebec, he was again sued and fined $55,000 for international arms dealing. After the suit he emigrated from Canada and set up shop in Brussels with a subsidiary of the SRC.
His success on the G5 won the attention of both Iraq and China. He built and sold advanced artillery to both nations through an Austrian outfit throughout the 1980s. Having developed something of a personal rapport with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Bull finally saw an opportunity to realize his ultimate goal. He convinced Hussein that, like Israel, Iraq needed the ability to launch satellites into orbit if it were ever to become a true regional power.
Work began on Project Babylon with a prototype of the supergun in the mid-1980s. This gun, named Baby Babylon, had a bore diameter of about 1 foot, and was approximately 100 feet long. It was mounted horizontally for test purposes, and was believed to have been constructed solely to develop the technology needed for Big Babylon. Nevertheless, Baby Babylon would have had a range of over 400 miles if properly mounted.
The appropriately named Big Babylon was so large that it had to be dug into a hillside for support. Its bore was 3 feet in diameter, and was over 500 feet long. Once completed it would have been capable of launching over 2 tons into orbit—about the size of a small reconnaissance satellite.
Bull was not entirely blind to the implications of Project Babylon, and according to some sources, he briefed several intelligence agencies including Britain’s MI5 and Israel’s Mossad on the ultimate aims of the project. Because it was completely immobile, slow to fire, and highly visible, Bull argued that Big Babylon was not a direct military threat to Israel or anyone else.
In 1990, the political winds shifted again; Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bull now found himself in the very difficult position of working for a dictator who was suddenly an enemy in the eyes of the entire world. Even worse, Bull had been working for years to improve Iraq’s Scud missile in exchange for Hussein’s funding of Project Babylon.
In early 1990, Bull’s apartment in Brussels was broken into several times over the course of a few months. Each time, items would be purposefully rearranged or carefully ransacked. In retrospect, these break-ins were probably a warning to Bull that went unheeded. In March 1990, Bull was shot five times in the back of the neck while entering his apartment. No one heard the shots, and no one saw the shooter.
There are a number of theories as to who killed Bull. Israel’s Mossad is the prime suspect, but there are rumors that the CIA wanted to prevent Bull from talking about its activities in South Africa during the war. Iraq and Iran are both suspects as well; Bull may have been suspected by Hussein of being an agent of the Western governments, and Bull’s help in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s had meant the deaths of thousands of Iranian troops.
Gerald Bull’s story is a fascinating one full of intrigue and tragedy. Like very few others, his fate was tied to events on the world stage. Yet his ill luck owed much to his personality and insensitive pursuit of his dream. After the fall of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, Project Babylon was dismantled entirely and shipped back to the UK where most of its parts had originated. Brilliant and cagey, Bull carried most of his expertise to the grave. Because of this loss of knowledge, along with his ultimate failure and spectacular downfall, supergun artillery may have forever perished with him.