Big Babylon’s barrel would have been over 170 yards long.
That’s if the “supergun,” whose parts were seized by British customs officials on this day in 1990, had ever been completed. But Big Babylon never made it to Iraq, writes William Park for the BBC. It was part of a failed “supergun” project that sounds like it was could be straight out of the pages of a Bond novel.
Initially, the supergun idea came out of the 1960s era of space-related innovation. In a time where governments were rushing to launch satellites, the Canadian inventor of the supergun was looking for a more cost-effective way to fire the devices into space, writes Park. At the time, Gerald Bull was “one of the world’s leading artillery experts,” he writes, but Bull wanted to use his work “to launch satellites not missiles.”
In spite of this noble intent, the story of Gerald Bull and the supergun was ultimately a tragic one. The reason: although Bull should have been able to take his expertise to any government in the world, he made the choice to offer his supergun to Saddam Hussein, who at that time was the Iraqi defence secretary. And that choice likely played a part in Bull's untimely death.
In the beginning of the supergun era, “Low cost was the concept, at least,” Andrew Higgins, a Canadian engineering professor, explained to Park. “Rather than throwing away the first stage of a rocket, using a large gun for the first stage would enable this hardware to be reused and easily serviced,” he said.
While the first Canadian and American projects Bull worked on in the 1960s were eventually scrapped, he held on to the idea of the supergun, Park writes. While the international community moved on from the idea in the 1970s, Bull kept working on it, and set up a private company to fund his endeavor.
According to The New York Times, in the late 1970’s his company, Space Research Corporation, illegally sold “advanced howitzer technology and more than 50,000 artillery shells to the South African government.” At that time South Africa was under a UN embargo. In the end, Bull served six months in prison.
In the latter part of his career, Park writes, Bull pulled away from the West. He was first contacted by Hussein in 1981—when working with Iraq was less controversial—and then in 1988 received $25 million from the Iraqi government to start Project Babylon. He manufactured the smallest gun of the project, Baby Babylon, and components for the Big Babylon, which was to be big enough to fire projectiles three feet across. According to Park, Bull maintained that his gun was unlikely to be used as a weapon because it was too big to be practical, but one Iraqi defector maintains that was the government’s intent.
“Our scientists were seriously working on that,” General Hussein Kamel al-Majeed is quoted as saying. “It was designed to explode a shell in space that would have sprayed a sticky material on the [spy] satellite and blinded it.”
Then on March 22, 1990, Bull was assassinated in his Brussels apartment. “Bull was shot in the neck while trying to enter his apartment in the suburb of Uccle,” reported Joseph Fried for The New York Times. According to Reuters, Fried wrote, he had $20,000 in cash in his pocket when his body was found, “leading investigators to believe that he was slain for reasons other than robbery.”
“After his death, Project Babylon went cold,” Park writes. Just two weeks later, the component seizure happened, and not long after that, Iraq invaded Kuwait, ending “Western involvement with the Iraqi regime,” he writes.