This is a tale so preposterous, so bizarre you couldn’t make it up. Saddam Hussain’s Project Babylon has everything you need for a rip-roaringly good yarn – a supergun, an arms dealer, a dictator and an unsolved murder. It’s a barely believable story but all completely true.
Project Babylon was a supergun, which, if had ever been finished, would have been the biggest gun the world had ever known. Yet this was no ordinary weapon of destruction and its original design purpose was to launch satellites into space. However, once the tyrannical Iraqi dictator entered the fray, things began to take an altogether darker turn.
This was a project that was never finished after its designer met a mysterious, untimely death, and Iraq launched itself into the minds of the western world with its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Project Babylon remains a baffling concept, but one that just might have worked.
When we say ‘supergun’ we tend to have images of science-fiction devices long in the future, but the truth is they’ve been around for a while.
World War I saw the use of what we would consider the first truly super guns. Germany’s Big Bertha howitzer, though small compared to what we’re coming to, was a little monster during the war. It had a 42 cm (17 inch) calibre barrel capable of launching projectiles 9.3 km (5.7 miles). But that was nothing compared to what arrived in 1918, which came to be known as the Paris Gun.
The vast gun used to shell the French capital was more about psychological warfare than real damage. Its 34 metre (112 ft) barrel length was easily the longest ever produced and was capable of shelling targets 130 km (81 miles) away. But size isn’t everything and the Paris Guns were not, in fact, a great success due to their small payload and lack of accuracy. World War II again saw Germany roll out some true beasts, notably the titanic Schwerer Gustav, the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat with a barrel measuring 47.3 metres (155ft) in length. While most know about the V1 and V2 rockets which sailed over the English Channel between 1944 and 1945, it was the experimental V3 which could have caused enormous damage had it ever been directed that way. The supergun, which was 130 m (430 ft) in length and intended to be used against London, was only put into operation to shell Luxembourg after it was liberated. Peace came to the world in 1945, but that certainly didn’t stop monstrous pieces of military hardware appearing during the Cold War.
Canadian engineer Gerald Bull led a colourful life. One of the world’s leading experts in artillery design, Bull began working for both the Canadian and U.S governments at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s – primarily on weapons research.
In 1961 he worked on Project Harp ( High Altitude Research Project) involving a modified 406mm (16-inch) U.S Navy battleship gun which was used to fire weather probes into sub-orbit. But this was just supposed to be the start. Bull’s vision was for a supergun like this to fire objects, and eventually whole satellites into orbit. He theorised that a gun could effectively replace at least the first stage of a launch, which always required the most power, the most fuel and the most money.
The war in Vietnam put an end to Project Harp in 1967, but it was an idea that remained firmly at the forefront of Bull’s mind. The 1970s were a turbulent time for Gerald Bull. Most governments around the world didn’t share his enthusiasm for a giant gun that could reach outer space, but they were interested in his other expertise – real, destructive weaponry.
He set up his own company, Space Research Corporation of Quebec, which took contracts from both the U.S and Canadian governments to develop artillery technology. His GC-45 howitzer appeared in the early 1970s and was eventually used around the world. But this was becoming a time when you had to be careful who you were doing business with.
The South African government in the 1970s was becoming deeply unpopular thanks to apartheid. Their involvement in the civil war in Angola had initially been supported by the United States, eager to stamp out communism in the region, but things changed when a U.N embargo on the sale of arms was placed on South Africa in 1977. Gerald Bull was already heavily involved in such sales to the African country and attempted to circumnavigate the law with the help of several back channels but was caught red-handed and spent 6 months in jail in Pennsylvania.
A Dictator Calls
If you think that a bit of prison time might have altered his way of thinking, think again. Bull was fined $50,000 for arms dealing again, shortly before leaving the North American continent for a new life in Belgium. He began developing weapons for China and eventually Iraq – and it was in the Middle East that he found a place to begin the development of what he had wanted all along – the space gun.
In 1981, Saddam Hussain had only recently assumed control of Iraq and took a shine to Bull and his ideas. Shocking I know, Saddam was really into guns. The Iran-Iraq war was then in its second year and would drag on until 1988 until it ended in a stalemate, leaving a million Iranians and between 250,000 and 500,000 Iraqi dead. In terms of horrific war with little logic and even less solid conclusions, this was right up there. In 1988, Iraq paid Bull $25 million ($55 million today) to begin work on what would come to be known as Project Babylon, under the stipulation that he continued to work on more down to earth weaponry – excuse the pun there.
Project Babylon was not one gun, but three. Two Big Babylons, each with 1000mm (39.3 inches) calibre guns and a prototype gun, known rather sweetly as Baby Babylon, which would come with a 350mm (13.7 inches) calibre gun.
Each Big Babylon barrel was designed to be 156 metres (511ft) in length – which is only slightly shorter than the height of the Washington Memorial. It would have weighed a colossal 1,510 tons – the weight of two Christ the Redeemer statues. This was a monster that would never be able to be moved around, so the plan was to embed it into a mountainside at a 45-degree angle.
Big Babylon was designed to use 9 tons of supergun propellant and fire a 600kg (1,322 pounds) projectile as far as 1000km (621 miles). In terms of a satellite, the gun could have been used to launch a 2,000kg (4,409 pounds) rocket-assisted projectile carrying a 200kg (440 pounds) satellite. If this had worked it could have fundamentally changed how we send objects into space.
The most obvious factor would have been the cost. Big Babylon would have cost $1,727 per kilogram (an estimated adjusted for inflation) to launch an object into space – still not cheap, but compared to the $22,000 per kilogram it costs NASA to launch a modern satellite using conventional methods it would have been a steal.
Now, you’re probably wondering just how interested in outer space was Saddam Hussain. Was Iraq on the verge of a space program that nobody knew about? The short answer is almost certainly not.
Project Babylon developed with dual purposes. While Bull had seemingly managed to convince Saddam Hussain of the value of satellites, it’s a little unclear exactly what the Iraqi leader planned to use it for. Was it just an almighty gun he could shell his enemies with? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been a great idea. This would have been a gun difficult to keep under wraps. Its recoil force alone would total 27,000 tons – equivalent to a small nuclear device and such a repeated force used in warfare seems unlikely. It would have made Big Babylon a relatively easy target – not exactly what you want on a $25 million($55 million today) project.
Another possibility, which only came to light after the defection of an Iraqi general to Jordan, was that Project Babylon was going to be used to blind spy satellites. The theory went, and this was very theoretical, that by exploding a shell in outer space close to an enemy satellite it could spray a sticky substance over it, and essentially blinding it. That sounds a little out there to me, but with this kind of story, it seems to fit in.
Baby Babylon was finished in May 1989 and installed on a hillside – sorry but I can’t be more specific than that. Tests began, which presumably went well because Bull began working on Big Babylon. Reports suggest that one condition Saddam Hussain placed on the continuation of the project was that Bull also worked on the country’s SCUD missile development, a condition that he agreed to.
And this is where things took a rather dark turn.
Working for a hated dictator with a growing list of enemies was always going to put Bull in a dicey situation. His apartment in Brussel was repeatedly broken into without anything actually being taken. A signal that whatever he was doing, he should probably stop.
The events of 22nd March 1990 are still hazy. Either Gerald Bull was just returning home or answered the door when his doorbell rang, but he was shot three times in the body, and twice in the head – he died immediately.
There were no witnesses to the murder and the assassin had used a silencer. When the police arrived they found his briefcase next to him with $20,000 (roughly $40,000 today) in cash still inside. If you ever needed an example of a professional hit job, this was exactly it.
So who killed Gerald Bull? Well, your guess is as good as mine, unfortunately. Most online sources seem to nudge towards MOSSAD, the Israeli secret service, in response to Bull’s participation in the SCUD program, though it must be said there is no clear evidence of this. Over the years numerous other parties have come to be linked with the murder, including the CIA, MI6, the Chilean, Syrian, Iraqi, and South African governments – but again with only the flimsiest of evidence attached.
The Supergun Affair
There was one final twist to this ridiculously absurd tale. After the assassination of Gerald Bull, Project Babylon was effectively shelved, but Bull had set in motion a set of circumstances that would cause many a real headache two weeks after his death.
I should probably add first that the UK, along with many nations around the world, had placed an arms embargo on Iraq by this time. You could not sell weapons to the Middle Eastern country, nor could you sell them the components to make weapons with.
During an inspection of a ship about to leave Middlesborough bound for Iraq, authorities came across 8 large pipes that in total measured 40 metres (131 ft). Whether or not they had been tipped off or it was merely a slice of luck we’re still not entirely sure, but the customs officers that day had found sections of what would be Big Babylon.
This set off an immediate investigation, both in Britain and across Europe, with other parts, including breeches (loaders) and recoil mechanisms found across the continent. Sheffield Forgemasters, who had built the pipes, came under heavy suspicion but claimed they had been told they were for pharmaceutical use.
The incident set off a chain of events that eventually led to the Arms to Iraq Affairs, which implicated the U.K government in encouraging manufacturing companies to turn a blind eye to what some of these products they were making for Iraq could be used for.
Four directors of Matrix Churchill, a British machine tools manufacturer, faced trial in 1991 over the sale of weapon parts to Iraq, but it collapsed shortly after when the shady involvement of Her Majesty’s government came to light. This was of course after the UK had participated in the first Gulf War against the man who just a few years before had been a good friend and healthy weapons customer. All in all, pretty embarrassing for everybody involved.
So that was the end of Project Babylon, but is that the last we’ve heard of the super, space gun? Probably not. As entirely bizarre as this entire story is, a lot of the fundamentals behind it really do make sense.
In 2009, a project called Quicklaunch appeared on the horizon. The project was designed to use a hydrogen-powered gas gun that could fire fuel capsules to a depot in space, which could then be used for missions to the Moon, or even Mars.
Unlike Project Babylon, Quicklaunch would be based in the ocean and have a barrel 1.1km (0.6 miles) in length and 3 metres (9.8ft) wide. But before you get your hopes up that project crashed and burned shortly a few years after it was announced.
While the numbers might add up, and the costs would certainly be much lower once constructed, the world just doesn’t seem to have the appetite for a supergun like this. Why do you think Saddam Hussain was the only taker? But who knows, maybe that crazy dictator was actually right.
If we look a few centuries into the future when space travel is much more common, it’s highly unlikely that the same methods we use now will be used then. Maybe we won’t use a supergun, but we will need a radically different approach to make it more accessible.
As for Project Babylon. This story had it all. Arms dealing, tyrannical dictators we love one minute then hate the next, a James Bond villain style gun – and the still-unsolved murder that brought it all down. A fascinating tale of extraordinary vision, utter madness and political assassination.