CBC TV FIFTH ESTATE ( 9:00 PM ET ) November 6, 2002
LINDEN MACINTYRE (Host): First our lead story. U.S. President Bush may look a little like a hockey enforcer these days, roaming the rink, spoiling for a fight with Saddam Hussein. His aggressive stance has ignited a flaming debate about what kind of a threat Saddam really poses.
One thing's for sure, Saddam's no innocent, and recent events in Europe show that he's resourceful too, ready to reach back in time to revive a class of weapons that many thought had been neutralized a decade ago.
The story of the Supergun and its Canadian creator is the sort of amazing yarn that could have jumped out of a James Bond film and straight into the headlines. A yarn that was uncovered by the fifth estate. Dictators and their guns. An enduring image in human history. The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein once had all the guns he needed back when he was a friend of the western democracies. But since the Gulf War in 1991 he's been considered a psychotic by the West. Someone not to be trusted with a gun.
For most of the nineties UN inspectors were in Iraq monitoring Saddam's arsenal, making sure he wasn't developing more serious weapons from nuclear and chemical and biological technology. When they found something suspicious they responded with dispatch.
Saddam ha also had a long romance with more conventional fire power, like field artillery. He developed some of the best guns in the world with the help of a Canadian.
Gerald Bull dreamed of building the most powerful guns in history. There have been suggestions his dream is still alive and kicking.
Mannheim, Germany. Authorities here recently charged two German business men for trying to bypass a weapons ban by selling high tech drilling gear to Iraq.
German prosecutor Hubert Jobski.
HUBERT JOBSKI (German Prosecutor): (SPEAKING IN GERMAN, TRANSLATION ON SCREEN)... Principally, the defendants are accused of having delivered drilling equipment, deep-drilling equipment, which can be used to drill 10-metre long barrels for cannons. The production company was duped. It was told that the tools would remain in Germany -- that their final destination was within the country. Once they had reached the company in Mannheim, they could easily be shipped out to Jordan and then to Iraq.
MACINTYRE: This is how the gun barrels would probably have ended up. The Al Fao, a 210 millimetre cannon that can be driven like a truck. It was designed by Gerald Bull and can still outshoot any artillery system in NATO.
CHRISTOPHER FOSS (Editor, Jane's Armour and Artillery): It fires a projectile weighing over a 100 kilograms to a range of about 57 kilometres, which is a long way away. And obviously with that sort of projectile you could put a high explosive or even a nuclear weapon in that sort of thing. That's probably why he's doing it. It's a very flexible weapons system.
MACINTYRE: Christopher Foss is the editor of the publication Jane's Armour and Artillery and he's followed Gerald Bull's career for decades.
FOSS: So what we're talking about in Germany it looks like the Al Fao has been resurrected. We all thought it had died and passed away, but that appears now to be not the case.
MACINTYRE: It was perhaps ironically a small gun that killed Gerald Bull in 1990. A 7.65 millimetre pistol in the hand of an assassination. To many it was a predictable end for the life of a man who had flirted with controversy and with danger for decades. A brilliant engineer who perhaps with some justification felt betrayed by colleagues and politicians and turned to the shadowy world of bootleg arms dealing to fulfil his potential and his ambition.
Gerald Bull's obsession with guns started at the University of Toronto where at the age of 22, he became their youngest ever Ph.D. graduate with a doctorate in aerophysics. Even then, he was stubborn and ambitious. He sneered at what he called cocktail scientists and bureaucrats. But he went to work for bureaucrats in the defence department after he graduated in 1951. The Cold War was underway, and there was plenty of work for engineers with big ideas, and he had big ideas about rockets and how far he could m me them go.
His former collaborator scientist Charles Murphy.
CHARLES MURPHY (Scientist): He wanted to build things. He wanted to do things other people couldn't do. He wanted to promise to do things that people said couldn't be done.
ANNOUNCER: The wraps are taken off secret Canadian defence research for the first time at Valcartier near Quebec City. Here at the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment, a team of experts have been working since 1945 to create weapons that will blunt a possible attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles.
MACINTYRE: What we now call Star Wars started with a rocket designed to intercept other rockets. Dr. Bull came up with a startling idea for testing the rockets. Instead of simulating flight in a wind tunnel, why not fire them from a gun? It would be the start of a new era in Canadian research, in space.
Bull was a young man in a hurry, and before long, he was feeling hobbled by government red tape and bureaucratic caution.
In 1961, he left the government and moved to McGill University to head a project called HARP.
MURPHY: The HARP program stands for High Altitude Research Project, and it was a proposal which came out of studies that Gerry and I made as to what was the peak altitudes that various-sized guns could shoot to.
ANNOUNCER: The man behind the project is McGill's 34-year-old professor of engineering science, Dr. Gerry Bull. An intense, impatient genius who has been working for five years on a cut-rate research program. Dr. Bull says that it's not impossible with this technique to place a package in orbit or hit the moon.
MACINTYRE: Lofty goals that in 1963 caught the attention of the Canadian government and the U.S. Army, who were intrigued by his plan for a 16-inch cannon with a barrel 60 feet long. His first big test was in Barbados, and it had the drama of a moon launch.
ANNOUCER: These were tense minutes for Dr. Gerry Bull. Years of calculation, trials and errors would soon be put to the test. Would the projectile behave as miniatures had in the laboratory? More than 60 cameras were on hand to record the shot. The cannon was elevated to 80 degrees. Higher than any of this type had ever gone before. Cameramen were moved away from their site.
MACINTYRE: As the countdown continued, Dr. Bull was the last man to take cover.
UNIDENTIFIED: Two, one...
MACINTYRE: The test was a success. But once again his disappointment with bureaucratic caution showed when he was asked what was next.
DR. GERRY BULL: Well, that's a rather tough question. We felt that the Americans would be more interested in the technique because of their very diversified program and their known diversified approach to all problems. They would be... we thought they'd be more receptive to coming out with something that was perhaps not as conventional.
MACINTYRE: He and his team at HARP went on to set world attitude record for a gun-fired projectile in 1966. But he had only begun to dream. He had proven that guns weren't just for killing, that they had a role in space research. As they continued their military research with rockets, he was getting ready to go the next step... Designing a gun large enough to put a satellite in orbit.
Eventually, the tension between space research and the military agenda which paid his bills began to take a toll.
MURPHY: The weapons application is, if you like, the standard use of guns, I think he was interested in much more of a non-standard.
MACINTYRE: The Canadian military was only interested in standard applications, shooting at targets, and they cancelled the HARP program in 1967. Bull would remain bitter for the rest of his life.
BULL: I would say the Canadian government in the first years of 1950s lived up to everything I had expected. That is, we were... we couldn't be as big as the Americans or get involved in that stuff but we could be the best in what we were doing and that was important. It was when the idea of having the best at something dropped into being mediocrity and just doing nothing that, that's a disheartening thing.
MACINTYRE: In 1968, abandoned by the bureaucrats he despised, he set up his own business here on an 8,000 acre site in Quebec straddling the border with Vermont. It was called the Space Research Corporation. From the air, you could see a firing range and a big gun. He still talked of the potential for space research in guns like this, but he needed money. And there was plenty of money available for conventional weapons. So he began to rethink conventional artillery assumptions, determined to invent a gun that would earn him a fortune.
He called it the GC-45, GC for Gun Canada, a prototype for a new 155-millimetre cannon that would outshoot anything in the field.
Jane's editor Christopher Foss described it to us in a 1991 broadcast.
FOSS: Basically, he developed a 45-caliber barrel that enabled you to fire a 155 projectile to a range of 40 kilometres. Almost double the range of existing artillery of that time. And to do it with accuracy, because that is what counts.
MACINTYRE: Bull was also designing ammunition for the big guns, and now the U.S. Military were so interested that they engineered U.S. Citizenship for him by a special act of Congress. Before long, he justified their confidence. Bull's 155-millimetre shell releases burning gases that reduce drag and give it that extra range.
The shell should have been a winner, but once again, he found himself abandoned at a crucial moment. He was in full production but the U.S. Army decided not to buy the new shell. He had to go looking for a new customer. And he found one. But the long-term consequences would be catastrophic for him.
When we come back, making deals with devils.
PETER UNTERWEGER (Former Arms Manufacturer): Well, Saddam said, to make it short, well where are our guns and can't you speed up delivery, we require them urgently.
ANNOUNCER: And now, we return to the fifth estate.
MACINTYRE: It was 1977. South Africa's army was bogged down in Angola. The Canadian-born inventor Gerald Bull agreed to sell them $30 million worth of long long-range shells in spite of an embargo on arms sales to South Africa. He exported the hot cargo through Spain. Paperwork called it "rough steel forgings". A year later, he was in the hotseat after a joint investigation by the fifth estate and the BBC uncovered the truth about the cargo and its final destination.
INTERVIEWER: But you're sure they're in Spain?
BULL: I know that... well, yeah, some of our people said they've talked to them and seen them in Spain and...
INTERVIEWER: According to what we've been told, they were re-exported out of Spain on a ship called the Breezand(?) and it gave it's destination as Canada. Only guess what?
BULL: Where did it go?
INTERVIEWER: South Africa.
BULL: South Africa. We... I haven't got... we'll certainly check it. Is it safe to kiss other women?
MACINTYRE: Initially he was unperturbed. The deal had a green light from the CIA. Bull thought he was in the clear. But in 1980, the party ended when he was arrested by U.S. Customs agents. The CIA's complicity didn't help. In fact, somebody ordered a halt to the customs investigation once Bull was in the bag. A customs agent who investigated Bull was Larry Curtis.
LARRY CURTIS (Customs Agent): I was told that the reason we never went any further was because there had been a phone call from the White House.
MACINTYRE: While the White House covered for the CIA, Bull pled guilty and went to jail.
MURPHY: At the time, he did plead he did not think that he would... would go to jail. He thought it would be a fine. He was very upset by his jail term. And it coloured his life emotionally. He felt rejected by Canada and by the U.S. during that period of his life.
MACINTYRE: His release from jail would mark a crucial turning point in his life.
CURTIS: He was very embittered against the United States government and the government of Canada. He made statements to different newspapers that he would never set foot in North America again.
MACINTYRE: Gerald Bull only spent about four months in jail, but the experience changed his life permanently. When he got out, his business was in shambles. That 8,000 acre estate in Quebec where he had conducted so many ballistics test was abandoned. There was no longer any hope that his beloved big gun would play any role in space exploration.
Bull went into exile to brood about the future, a bitter and dangerous man.
The man who shared his exile and helped him rebuild his life over the next ten years was his son, Michel. In a 1991 interview, he spoke about his father's bitterness.
MICHEL BULL (Gerry Bull's Son): What had he left you? What could he do here? The press made him look like a Dr. Strangelove, like a mad, evil person, you know. He really had nothing left here.
MACINTYRE: Is that why he left not just the country, the continent, he put it all behind him?
MICHEL BULL: It was mostly a very rational decision. He had nothing left here to work for, you know. All doors were shut. Nobody would talk to him.
MACINTYRE: Bull retreated to the Caribbean, but the sunshine and the music didn't do much for the chill of his bitterness.
BULL: I feel more than betrayed. I feel that all of the memories and all the traditions and everything that I thought the country stood for has been betrayed. They think they've degraded me? They haven't. They think they've broken my spirit? They haven't. What I did and what I built, to see it cheapened, to see people trying to degrade me personally as this common criminal -- for what?
MACINTYRE: He relocated to Brussels, then an international centre for weapons trading and intrigue. It was a long way from his academic beginnings in Toronto. Weapons dealer Robert Turp...
ROBERT TURP (Weapons Dealer): Everybody in the arms business fetches up in Brussels, in the same way as they say all roads lead to Rome, all guns point from Brussels.
MACINTYRE: Bull had a deal cooking in the Austrian city of Linz. Adolf Hitler used to paint water colours in Linz. When Bull got there, it was noted for a steel works called Voest-Alpine and they were interested in his guns.
Former arms manufacturer Peter Unterweger.
PETER UNTERWEGER (Former Arms Manufacturer): Dr. Gerald Bull, he was a very outspoken man. He was an interesting character. He emptied a bottle of whiskey so fast, you couldn't compete with him. On the other hand, he certainly was as far as artillery equipment was concerned an absolute technical genius.
MACINTYRE: Voest-Alpine bought a licence to manufacture Bull's GC-45 cannon. The Austrians knew a winner when they saw one and were soon selling the gun far and wide. Inevitably they caught the attention of Saddam Hussein.
The soldiers' enthusiasm was misleading. They were in an old-fashioned war with Iran and it wasn't going very well. Saddam needed something better than his outdated 130-millimetre Soviet guns.
UNTERWEGER: The Austrian Minister of Interior had a discussion with Saddam Hussein, and, well, Saddam said, to make it short, well, where are our guns and can't you speed up delivery, we require them urgently.
MACINTYRE: During the '80s, Saddam bought 520 of those Canadian-born guns, the GC-45s, in deals quietly channelled through Austria, China and South Africa. By 1988, Bull's draftsmen were busy designing two new bigger and better guns which Saddam Hussein had commissioned for his army.
FOSS: One was the Majnoon which is the 155 and the Al Fao was the 210-millimetre one. Both of those were in actual fact designed and built in Europe and flown into Baghdad in '89 where they were shown for the first time at the famous Baghdad arms show.
MACINTYRE: It wasn't exactly what Bull had in mind when he built his Supergun in the Quebec countryside, a cannon that could shoot for hundreds of kilometres now sitting impotently rusting away. But the vision was still fresh. All he needed was more money. And when the whiskey flowed, he talked of guns that were twice as long and twice as wide as this one. Peter Unterweger...
UNTERWEGER: You see, the more whiskey he and my colleagues drank, the farther the gun shooted. But in the end, it was about 1000 kilometres. But they also said technically, technically speaking... theoretically speaking, you could even produce a gun which shoots 2,000 or 3,000 or whatever kilometres.
MACINTYRE: It was a notion that was irresistible in Baghdad where he would soon find an ear and an enthusiasm to match his own. Saddam Hussein was introduced by Bull's vision of a new strategic weapon that was simple and cheap and deadly.
American defence expert John Pike.
JOHN PIKE (American Defence Expert): ...could have built a weapon for Iraq. I think that it basically would have complemented his long-range ballistic missile program. It would have given him the ability to put a large number of warheads possibly with chemical or biological weapons onto a long-range target such as Israel.
MACINTYRE: By the end of the '80s, Iraq had more tanks than anyone else in the region. The Iraqis had rockets and scud missiles. But missiles have fragile electronic guidance systems, and they can be intercepted by other missiles. A supergun could rain death on distant cities with relatively relatively... relative impunity. Artillery expert Terry Gander.
TERRY GANDER (Artillery Expert): We're not talking about pinpoint accuracy. We're talking about accuracy of hitting a city. In Tel Aviv, taking a prime target, everything is compressed into a relatively small area and it's -- a relatively small target and it could be neutralized relatively quickly.
MACINTYRE: Bull was only starting on what they were calling Project Babylon when he came under heavy surveillance. By 1990, he was a target of Israeli intelligence. The former chief artillery officer in Israel, Avraham bar David.
ABRAHAM BAR DAVID (Former Chief Artillery Officer, Israel): Carrying all his knowledge with him and not cooperating with too many people definitely was a key... a key strategic point that, if you take him out, you are losing control of the entire system.
MURPHY: In a sense, he had no governmental protectors. His government of his birth had rejected him and the government whose passport he carried had imprisoned him. He was in a sense vulnerable from a standpoint of being a person who would not have a lot of people concerned if he was killed.
MACINTYRE: Bull knew his life was in danger. He told friends and family about threats from the Israeli spy agency Mossad. Israeli intelligence experts confirm he was clearly warned but wouldn't listen. David Halevy.
DAVID HALEVY (Israeli Intelligence Expert): The guy is saying, sir, if you carry on, we will have to take harsh action against you, against your companies and against the people who work with you. Basically, he walked away from the meeting. I mean, he said, I don't want to listen, I heard enough. For Bull, it was a lost case. His fate was sealed. Two teams of assassins arrived in Brussels.
MACINTYRE: While one team waited at Bull's apartment, another was outside the office. Despite the threats, Bull was taking no special precautions. Blinded by his ambition, Bull seemed to have been oblivious to the danger he was in.
HALEVY: Gerry Bull and the team appeared together at the entrance to his apartment. One guy opens fire, five shots. You don't hear any noise. The only thing he will hear is a phut-phut kind of noise. And they're gone.
MACINTYRE: Gerald Bull was dead. It was now time to kill his dream. Two weeks later, British customs officials seized a shipment of pipes supposedly destined for a petrochemical plant in Iraq. They were really components for the barrel of Dr. Bull's Supergun. The pipes were large enough to handle 350-millimetre and 1,000-millimetre shells. The authorities thought they had aborted the Babylon project, but within a year, it became obvious they hadn't.
UNIDENTIFIED: A feat of engineering, isn't it?
MACINTYRE: After the Gulf War in 1919, UN weapons inspectors found a 350-millimetre prototype for a supergun. Almost a carbon copy of Gerald Bull's original design. And they found these... Components that could have been assembled for a 1,000-millimetre gun. Because they were classified as potential weapons of mass destruction, they were decommissioned, permanently.
Weapons experts believed that was the end of the Supergun.
PIKE: The good news about the Babylon super cannon is that the thing would be so big, would have such obviously large facilities, that that would be one weapons program that satellite imagery would be able to detect and there's simply no indication that now that they don't have the guiding intelligence of Gerald Bull, that Iraq has tried to revive that particular project.
MACINTYRE: But Saddam managed to salvage two products of Bull's genius in artillery.
FOSS: The two self-propelled artillery systems were not destroyed because they didn't have to be with the United Nations, and they were still there. Obviously he's trying to get that program up and moving, because they would have the useful capability to his arsenal.
MACINTYRE: Before 1991, few would have guessed that Bull's dream of a Supergun had in fact survived his death. The equipment was dismantled, but as history has already shown, ideas are more durable than hardware. And Gerald Bull's ideas have survived him in a place of proven unpredictability.
Copyright 2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation