b 1928 Ontario, d 1990 Brussels
Gerald Bull had a vision and an obsession, a vision that led to estrangement from his native Canada, prison in America, and ultimately assassination by Israel. His vision was of an entirely new way to get into space: small rockets boosted by giant guns. To achieve it he worked for some of the worst regimes on earth: South Africa, China, and ultimately Iraq. His work affected the course of two modern wars and revived the ancient field of artillery.
My information about him comes from: "Arms and the Man - Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq, and the Supergun" by William Lowther, Presidio Press, 1991. It's a crisp treatment of a fascinating subject. This picture came from there too: it shows Bull in 1965 when he headed up the HARP project in Barbados.
Bull was born in North Bay Ontario in 1928. He had a loveless childhood; he was raised by an aunt after the death of his mother and abandonment by his father. He excelled at school, however, and graduated at age 23 with a doctorate from the University of Toronto. At that point he was a standard-issue hacker: thin, pale, and with an enormous capacity for work. He wound up at the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment (CARDE), a world-class center for weapons research filled with technology transferred from Britain to Canada to keep it away from the Nazis.
After WW II CARDE was looking at the problems of supersonic aerodynamics in preparation for supersonic aircraft and missiles. Supersonic wind tunnels were expensive, but Bull hit on an alternate approach: instead of moving air at supersonic speeds past a model, fire the model at supersonic speeds down a test range. While in the barrel of the gun, the model would be surrounded by a wooden shell, or sabot. Upon leaving the gun, the sabot would fall away and the model would fly freely. High-speed cameras could record its behavior during flight. The scheme worked brilliantly on early missile tests, but was overshadowed by Soviet aircraft advances which caused the project's cancellation. This was Bull's introduction to large artillery.
Bull was saved from terminal nerd-dom by his marriage to Noemie Gilbert, a beautiful French-Canadian from a wealthy family. It brought a warmth and love to his life that he had never known. They had seven children, several of whom followed their father into aerospace engineering. Lowther says that "whatever else might be said about Dr. Bull's actions - particularly towards the end of his life - he had reason to be very proud of his family." They remember him with love, but provided a lot of honest opinion in interviews.
Bull became head of the Aerophysics Dept. of CARDE by age 31, and effectively the chief aerodynamicist of Canada. Still, he was too big a fish in too small a pond. He loathed bureaucracy, and they loathed him back. He was constantly talking to the press about what he could do if given more funds or time, and finally ticked off too many people. He left CARDE after only two more years and set up as a consultant and professor at McGill.
There followed an extraordinary period, like something out of "Dr. No". In 1961 Bull convinced a number of people in Washington of the value of large guns for both the testing of nosecones for orbital re-entry and as launch platforms in themselves. With money from the Pentagon and the Canadian Defense Dept. he set up Project HARP (High Alititude Research Program) to study high altitude ballistics and large guns. Bull bought a large parcel of land on the Vermont-Quebec border and set it up as a testing range. The tests were mainly in tunnels, since there wasn't room to test shells in free flight.
For free flight tests he bought a range in Barbados, where he could fire shells eastward over the Atlantic. He installed an old naval gun there with a 40 cm (15 in) caliber. It had a 20 m barrel and weighed 125 tonnes. Bull extended the barrel to 36 m, and developed special projectiles and special formulations of cordite. By the time he was done, he could launch a 180 kg projectile at 3600 m/s, which is about a third of escape velocity. He could hit altitudes of 180 km. That's not orbit, nor is 3600 m/s nearly enough to get things into orbit, but it showed what could be done. The whole project cost in the area of $10 million, chicken feed by missile standards.
Before he could extend his work to larger and longer guns, his plug got pulled. Enemies in Ottawa disparaged his work, saying that he had made inflated claims for it (which was true), that no satellite could survive the acceleration up the gun barrel (which was false), and that the whole project was cover for the Pentagon. Viet Nam was at its height, a war that was despised by the Canadians and that tainted everything done by the American military. They yanked his funding.
Before the axe fell, Bull managed to get the assets of HARP transferred to his own corporation. This let him continue to do research into artillery, now as a consultant to the world's armies.
Bull specialized in increasing the range of shells. He would improve their aerodynamics and would add bleeder charges to the bottom of shells that would emit gas to fill the vacuum left behind a shell in flight. Range makes a tremendous difference in artillery. If your gun can shoot thirty miles and you enemy's can shoot 20, that means you can stand ten miles out of his range and blow him to bits without risk to yourself.
Oddly enough, Bull himself was not particularly militarist. He never saw military service or even owned a handgun. He was said to be generous and thoughtful. He just found something that he really loved doing.
He consulted for everyone, but ran into trouble when he worked for the South Africans. The South Africans were having trouble in Angola at the time (the mid-Seventies). The communist government, aided by Cuban troops and Soviet artillery, was pounding their proxy soldiers to bits. Bull, with the implicit encouragment of the CIA, helped them design a new 155-mm howitzer with 50% more range than anything else at the time. He sold them gun barrels for it and thousands of shells. With the new guns, the South Africans were able to stop the Angolans cold.
Then Carter was elected, and South Africa was no longer in favor. Bull was brought up on charges of illegal arms dealing. On the advice of his lawyer, he pleaded guilty and served six months in prison in 1980.
It broke him. It ruined his repuation, cost him his facility in Quebec, and wrecked his company. When he got out of prison he was broke and desperate. He left Canada and set up in Brussels. He scrounged for work everywhere, and eventually wound up consulting for China and Iraq.
Iraq was in the midst of its own war at this time with Iran. They bought hundreds of Bull's howitzers from South Africa and Austria. The guns were particularly lethal on the open plains of the border between Iraq and Iran where there was no shelter from their fragments. Having been impressed by his work, they decided to hire him directly.
Here's where the supergun came into play. Bull convinced them that the only way that Iraq could join the club of major powers was if it could launch its own satellites. Israel already could. The supergun provided a cheap and impressive way to get into orbit. He called it Project Babylon.
This model of the gun was on display at the Baghdad International Exhibition for Military Production in May 1989. The tiny figure shows the scale.
Babylon was not, however, of much military use. It would have had a barrel 150 meters long and a meter in diameter. At the breech the barrel would be 30 cm thick. In all it would have weighed 2100 tonnes. This was obviously not something that could be moved around. One air strike could destroy it. Israel had already bombed Iraq once, when it destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, so there was little doubt they would do it again if they felt threatened.
Bull knew they would be concerned, and briefed Mossad on the nature of the project. He also briefed MI5. But mindful of his experience with the US, he had the pieces of the project done quietly. He also kept much of the project secret from his family, knowing they would not approve.
In return for support for the supergun, Iraq demanded that he help them with the design of a multi-stage missile that they were trying to assemble out of SCUD parts. Bull agreed, and did many of the nosecone calculations.
That is what killed him. Israel had no great reason to care about the supergun, but they had much to fear from Iraqi missiles. Warning signs were left for him. His apartment was broken into several times, but nothing was stolen. A few items were disturbed just to show that someone had been there.
In March of 1990, Bull was killed outside his apartment by five shots to the back of his head. No one heard the shots, and no one was ever caught.
Project Babylon fell apart immediately. Bull was the engine for the whole project, and had most of it in his head. Three weeks after his murder, British customs agents seized the sections of the gun barrels, which were being made in Sheffield by a forging company who thought they were petrochemical pipes. His company, SRC, closed its offices immediately, and the personnel scattered or returned to Canada. Iraq never did get their missiles to work well.
Was all his work for naught? Basically, yes. Few others have seriously pursued guns as a launch platform, although SDI has funded some gas gun work at Livermore as an anti-missile defense. Some small country might still be interested in them as a cheap way into space, but the world now has a glut of conventional launchers. The ex-USSR is now desperate to make some money off of their own rocket development. A satellite in a gun launcher has severe limits on size and weight, and must be able to stand tremendous acceleration. Superguns would always have been a niche launch platform. Also, the prospect of assassination like Bull's does not encourage researchers.
So, an odd technological alley has been closed off. Israel re-confirms its reputation as a rogue nation. Six months after Bull's death, Iraq invades Kuwait and goes down in history for having made the world's worst foreign policy miscalculation. And speaking for the pyromaniac inside every engineer, I have to say that I'm glad someone tried out the giant gun alley, and glad that it wasn't me.
(c) John Redford, Apr-92Back to "Doomed Engineers"