Saddam Hussein was one of the world’s most brutal dictators. Like any brutal strongman worth his salt, Saddam indulged in his share of mustache twirling super-villainy. He is most infamous for his possession/use of biological and chemical weapons throughout the 1980s into the early 1990s. But not content with doomsday weapons, Saddam’s regime tried to build a weapon both terrifying in its size and power, something that a comic book super-villain could be proud of. In a Freudian twist, this weapon took the shape of a massive supergun, designed by the famed Canadian artillery expert named Gerald Bull.
The attempt to build the weapon was dubbed Project Babylon. If it had been completed, the gun would have been the biggest artillery piece in history.
A massive piece of hardware
Project Babylon was divided into four devices. The first was dubbed “Baby Babylon” and it was designed to test the concept. The gun measured 151 feet in length and had a 350 mm (13.8 inch) bore. It was positioned horizontally at first, but after a few test shots with lead projectiles it was mounted at a 45 degree angle by laying it on a hillside. In this position, it was estimated that the weapon could fire a projectile about 500 miles (750km). Unlike superguns developed in WWI and WWII, Baby Babylon wasn’t designed to be moved.
It’s big brother, Big Babylon, was also immobile. The monstrous weapon featured a 512 foot (152 meter) barrel with a 3.3 foot (1 meter) bore. It was designed to be suspended from a steel framework using cables. When upright, it would stand 300 feet tall. While the intent behind building such a big gun weren’t entirely clear, it could have been used both to fire small satellites into space and to lob projectiles at Israel.
However, as a weapon, Big Babylon wasn’t exactly practical, since it couldn’t be aimed with any kind of accuracy. The only way to guide the projectiles would have been to install guidance systems inside the shells themselves. Saddam already possessed the infamous Scud missiles, which could reach both Israel and Iran, his two adversaries at the time, so it isn’t clear why building a giant gun would be a priority. In addition, the gun was so big that even if it had been fired, Israeli or American planes could easily wipe it out with a bombing run.
Two more variants of Project Babylon were planned, but production was interrupted by both the actions of British customs officials and the Gulf War. Parts of the weapons were produced in British steelworks, disguised as high pressure petrochemical pipes, for a pipeline. However, when officials noticed that the tubes were built to withstand far more pressure than was needed to pump oil, they began to suspect foul play. Their seizure of several of the parts prevented Iraq from building a second Big Babylon. In 1991, after the conclusion of the Gulf War, UN weapons inspectors dismantled the extant Project Babylon guns after the war, and confiscated the parts earmarked for the other projects.
Assassination and the death of a dream
While the two events above did write the epitath of Project Babylon, the guns really died with Gerald Bull. Gerald Bull, the designer of Project Babylon, was a colorful character. He became fascinated with big guns at a young age, after reading about the Paris Gun, a massive artillery piece used by the Germans to fire on the French capital during World War I. The weapon was too little too late, though, and did nothing to change the course of that conflict.
Bull became obsessed with superguns. He envisioned massive artillery pieces that could fire projectiles into space. In the 1960s, he became involved with Project HARP, an attempt to build a gun to do just that. The project fell apart due both to Bull’s belligerent personality, especially his disdain for bureaucrats of all kinds, and the fact that space agencies in both Canada and the United States believed the future of space travel lay in rockets, not big guns.
Despite this setback, Bull still held on to his dream of building a supergun. In his obsessive madness, he began to turn increasingly to shady dealings to find funding. Finally, in the 1980s he came into contact with the Iraqis, who were very interested in Bull’s ideas. They’d already put some of his designs, artillery pieces that could accurately fire a projectile 25 miles, to use against the Iranians i the Iran/Iraq War. A poisonous partnership was established.
Enter Israel. The Jewish state was constantly on alert, which tends to happen when you’re surrounded by people who hate you and would like nothing better than to see your country wiped off the map. They had been watching Project Babylon carefully, since it was fairly likely that, if Iraq got itself a big gun, it would be pointed right at Israel. No doubt, they wanted Project Babylon ended, the sooner the better.
This put Bull right in the cross hairs. He was assassinated in March of 1990 outside his apartment in Belgium. Two bullets ended Bull’s life, Project Babylon, and the dream of a gun that could reach space. While Israel never claimed responsibility for the killing, most believe the assassination was the work of an Israeli agent. Since then, no one has tried to restart Project Babylon.
“Project Babylon.” Wikipedia.org. March 31, 2014. Wikipedia. March 23, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Babylon>
Toolis, Kevin. “The Man Behind Iraq’s Supergun.” NYTimes.com. August 26, 1990. The New York Times. March 24, 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/26/magazine/the-man-behind-iraq-s-supergun.html?src=pm&pagewanted=1>