Saddam’s Secret Super Gun – Project Babylon

 
Left: Saddam Hussein; Right: Photo of two parts of the Iraqi supergun bolted together. Note in the original design the two parts would have been 48 and 52 in line and thus would have had 3 bits between them. By Geni - GFDL
 
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Project Babylon was an Iraqi code name for the construction of a supergun, commissioned by Sadam Hussein in 1988. The engineer in charge of the project was a Canadian named Gerald Bull. Bull had a history of ambitious projects starting with the Canadian government when he first made plans for resurrecting the supergun technology abandoned during the Second World War.

Superguns were used by the Germans to bombard areas from a great distance during sieges. Most notable superguns from this period were Big Gustav and Dora. They’ve used a 31.5-inch (or 80 cm) projectile which could successfully fire at a distance of almost 30 miles (47 kilometers). It was quite impractical, though.

 

Moving only on rails, manned by a crew of a several hundred people and highly immobile it was an easy target for Allied bombers. The construction was too expensive, and so too was the maintenance.

Bull’s idea was different. If not used in combat the gun could be used for other purposes.

A model of the Dora Supergun. By Scargill – CC BY-SA 3.0

He intended to make a so-called space gun that could launch satellites into orbit. After a series of disagreements with the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment (CARDE) in 1960, he went to work at the McGill University in Montreal. The Pentagon soon became interested in his work. He became head of the project HARP – High Altitude Research Program (not to be confused with

He became head of the project HARP – High Altitude Research Program (not to be confused with HAARP). This is where he managed to build a cannon that could fire a projectile miles into orbit.

Project Harp
Project Harp.

The project was based in Barbados, from where shells were fired eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean using an old U.S. Navy 16-inch (410 mm), 50 caliber gun (20 m). It was later extended to a 100 caliber gun (40 m). In 1966, the project installed its third and final 16-inch gun at a new test site in Yuma, Arizona. On November 18, 1966, the Yuma gun fired a 400 lb (180 kg) projectile at 7,000 ft/s (2,100 m/s) sending it briefly into space and setting an altitude record of 110 mi (180 km). That world record still stands as of 2013.

The project was cancelled, due to the controversies over the Vietnam War policy and preserving the traditional Canadian-American good diplomatic relations shortly after and Bull started his own private company, Space Research Institute, Inc.

Abandoned HARP gun in Barbados.
Abandoned HARP gun in Barbados.

After this, Bull was involved in projects for the South African Republic in the 1970’s, building howitzers to help them defeat the Communists in Angola. The CIA provided this contract to Bull, so he could help change the tide in the war since the Cubans and the Soviets were supporting the Angolan Communists.

He had been accused of gun running by the UN, under the Carter administration, and landed in jail for six months in 1980. This event fueled his mercenary-scientist attitude and in 1988 he agreed to help Saddam Hussein build a supergun under the title Project Babylon.

A section of the Iraqi supergun from Imperial War Museum Duxford. Photo Credit.
A section of the Iraqi supergun from Imperial War Museum Duxford. Bluemoose – CC BY-SA 3.0

During this time, Bull had produced two superguns – Baby Babylon and Big Babylon. Baby Babylon was a prototype which served for test purposes. It used a 13.5 inch (350 mm) projectile which was fired through a barrel 151 ft (46 m) long. It could achieve a range of up to 466 miles, or 750 kilometers and it weighed 102 tonnes. It was completely immobile.

The next step was Big Babylon. The intention was to build a pair of these. Its specifications were a 512 ft (156 m) barrel that fired a 3,3 (1 m) ft projectile. It was supposed to weigh 2,100 tonnes. Bull applied his HARP research on the building of this gun, as it was intended to be a space gun, possibly firing satellites into the orbit.

Photo of a model of the the breech of the Project Babylon Iraqi supergun. Photo Credit.
Photo of a model of the the breech of the Project Babylon Iraqi supergun. By Geni – GFDL

The other possible purpose was military, but it demanded a terminal guidance system built in the projectile, since the weapon itself was completely immobile and had no possibility to be elevated, or trained. Its ability to fire conventional projectiles was fairly limited. It was impossible to aim with it; it had a slow rate of fire and a “signature” blast that gave away its position almost immediately after firing. Its combat use was of no more significance than the earlier German superguns.

It was never really clear what purpose Saddam Hussein wanted these guns to be used, for Iraq at that time had already acquired Scud missiles which were both more effective and practical than the supergun. Nevertheless, Bull planned to deliver an improved version of the Big Babylon, the one that could be fitted on a train cart and moved if necessary. The range of the third gun was to be around 625 miles (1000 km), which would jeopardize both Israel and Iran, with whom Saddam had troubled diplomatic relations, to say the least.

Big sections table of the Babylon of Fort AT Nelson. Photo Credit
Big sections table of the Babylon of Fort AT Nelson.

Big Babylon supergun was never finished because the mastermind behind it, Gerald Bull was assassinated in Brussels in March 1990. There are a lot of theories about the assassination. Mossad, the Israeli secret service, were the first to distribute information about the involvement of Iraqi agents in the assassination, only hours after it happened.

Others suggest that it could’ve been the governments of Iran, Syria, or South Africa. Some claim that it was the work of Western secret services, such as the CIA, or  MI6, and then again there are even theories that the Chileans did it, for Bull had some ties with the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet.

Gerald Bull, 1964. Photo Credit.
Gerald Bull, 1964. By Gerald Bull, 1964 – CC BY-SA 3.0

Soon after this event, the UK customs confiscated a shipment of parts for the gun which were imported from England. The parts were imported from England, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, under a variety of disguises. In this case, the crates were labeled “petrochemical pressure vessels”. After the Gulf War in 1991, the Iraqis admitted the existence of the unfinished guns, and they were destroyed by the UN as part of the disarmament process, in the aftermath of the end of the First Gulf War.