It isn’t often that the public gets to see that James Bond is alive and well and still has his licence to kill. On 22 March last year, Gerald Bull, a Canadian scientist with a US passport, a wife back home and a mistress in Belgium, was shot dead outside his Brussels apartment with five shots from a silenced 7.65mm pistol. The assassin left behind $20,000 in cash which Bull had in his pockets. Two days later a Belgian newspaper ran a one-paragraph story headlined Meurtre d’un Américain. An extraordinary career had come to an abrupt end.
Hélène Grégoire, the friend who found Bull’s corpse moments after his death, was interviewed first by a policeman and then by Belgian intelligence agents. It was, they said, a ‘political’ killing and would probably never be solved. It hasn’t been – at least not so far. Bull was one of the world’s foremost artillery and ballistics experts and he was working for Iraq. The thesis of this biography by William Lowther, a journalist who had already completed most of his research when Bull was killed, is that the Israelis assassinated him, not because of his attempts to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and build a supergun to fire projectiles into space, but because he was behind schedule on the supergun project and was therefore appeasing the Iraqis by helping them with their more dangerous long-range missile programme.
Bull, Lowther explains in some detail, had been repeatedly if obliquely warned about his links with Iraq. He was well aware of the dangers of his profession. He had been in the arms business from the start of his career; he had been jailed for selling howitzer equipment to South Africa and investigated for his dealings with China. He was used to having his suitcases go missing from airline flights while various secret services pored over their contents, and always kept a heavy bag containing his most important papers by his side. But by the time he died he was a particularly frightened man. Second-hand warnings passed on by word of mouth had been ominously underlined by the mysterious people who entered his apartment and deliberately moved his furniture in such a way that even an eccentric scientist could not fail to notice. They wound back a videocassette he was half-way through watching and removed it from the machine. They replaced some of his drinking glasses with a new and different set.
Given the available evidence, there is nothing wrong with the thesis that the Israelis killed Bull, but the whole truth may never be known. Israel, keen to reinforce the awe with which its security services are regarded in the Arab world, is often a willing as well as a convenient scapegoat in such matters, and there are those who believe that the British or the Americans were the real assassins. It could even have been the Iraqis, who have been so free with their thallium-poisoned yoghurt in the past; Bull’s friends and family say that the Iraqi supergun had become an open secret and that Bull kept the Israelis and Western intelligence agencies informed. The real interest of Lowther’s book is not that it purports to solve an intriguing mystery but that in giving an account of Bull’s life it helps to explain the complexities of the international arms market (where public enemies are often private friends) and the folly of Western supplies of arms and technology to Iraq between the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990
The ninth child of George L. Toussaint Bull (‘a bibulous solicitor’), Gerald was three years old when his mother died. At school he built model aeroplanes and felt lonely. He was to become a temperamental mathematical and scientific genius and a sentimental lover of poetry, a man with a big grin, a ruddy complexion and a fondness for practical jokes. He began his career with the then ambitious Canadian aerospace and weapons industry and quickly showed a knack for improvisation and a distaste for bureaucracy. Faced with the problems of testing a model of the proposed Velvet Glove Canadian supersonic air-to-air missile in 1952, Bull decided to use a gun to fire the model through the range – instead of having a stationary model with air blown past it at supersonic speed by a wind tunnel. Bigguns became his obsession. Although he insisted that launching objects into space with guns was much cheaper than using rockets – he believed it could be done for about five thousand dollars a shot – it wouldn’t be right to say that he was simply a howitzer-lover adrift in the age of the guided missile. His own designs for high-altitude shells required multi-stage, rocket-assisted projectiles, and his rivals have yet to abandon conventional artillery or to dismiss the concept of the supergun. In the late Sixties when funding started to run out for his High Altitude Research Project (HARP), which used extended navy guns on Barbados, he and his Space Research Corporation stayed afloat by doing business where they could – Israel, China, Iran, Iraq, South Africa and many more. Already embittered by the lack of support, he was outraged and humiliated by the one-year jail sentence he received for doing business with the South Africans, insisting that the CIA knew about the deal, that they had encouraged it, and that he was being used as a scapegoat by Jimmy Carter, who wanted to show he was wielding a new broom in the White House.
There is no doubt that Bull was good at his work. By the late Fifties, long before anyone had heard of Star Wars, he was devising ways of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles with a sort of giant shotgun. Often shunned by the American defence establishment, he designed guns for Third World customers that were better than anything in the Nato arsenal. Long-range artillery designed by Bull and fielded by Iraq in the war over Kuwait had the technical edge over anything on the Allied side, except – another piece of one-up-manship for the missile over the gun – the MLRS multiple rocket launchers deployed by the Americans and rushed into service by the British.
Lowther’s political analysis is rudimentary (he asserts that the West suddenly started to treat Iraq as a pariah after the Iran-Iraq ceasefire in 1988, which is exactly what the West did not do), but the book is otherwise competently if not elegantly written, and it provides a useful piece of the jigsaw for anyone researching the background to the Gulf War. Perhaps inevitably, Lowther has relied too much on the Bull family’s version of events, while Bull himself is repeatedly given the benefit of the doubt as being politically ‘naive’. He is drawn to the (white) South Africans and to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqis and sympathises with their political grievances – against black Communism or against overweening Israel. Bull is portrayed as a man appalled by the idea of death,paying frequent visits to the First World War graveyards of Europe and shedding tears at the thought of young men slain in their prime by artillery. Yet this is the same man who said, after helping the desperate US Navy extend the range of its shells by ten kilometres to match Soviet coastal guns in Vietnam:
They were in a panic. We were given 120 days to produce a new shell. It would normally have taken a couple of years. But we put a crew together and in 120 days we had a shell for them. It was a sabotted shell and it had a range of 35 kilometres. And so we had them back kicking Communist ass with five kilometres to spare.
Bull, nicknamed Grandpapa Clown by his granddaughter and Dr Strangelove by his engineers, was not as sentimental or naive as all that. His assistant Monique Jamine tells of an incident in late 1989 when Bull was informing the Israelis, at his Brussels office, about his work in Iraq. ‘When the Israelis left, Bull was laughing because we had some Iraqi visitors on the second floor and the staff was busy making sure that the two groups didn’t meet.’ A worried Bull later told Monique that his Iraqi friends had offered to kill Christopher Cowley, the man who helped co-ordinate the supergun plan known as Project Babylon, after Cowley had finished working for Bull and Bull casually remarked to the Iraqis that there was a danger he might talk to the press. Perhaps Bull was not just naive, or just careless, or just ruthless, but all three at once when he wanted to pursue a project. ‘He could understand that there might be technical obstacles to be overcome, his friend Alfred Ratz told Lowther:
But he could not understand why there should be silly political or administrative obstacles. Or why his projects should be permitted to be blocked by ignoramuses. His ideas were his life-blood. So he connived to pursue them in any way he could.
Bull was more convincingly naive in financial matters. To the despair of his sons, he was willing to accept ridiculous terms in order to strike a deal with a client and get on with his work. Voest-Alpine of Austria and Armscor of South Africa both bought Bull’s howitzer technology and then proceeded to export weapons based on his designs without payment of royalties, and the South Africans had the gall to boast about their home-grown weaponry.
Project Babylon, which proceeded in parallel with Bull’s work on long-range conventional artillery for Iraq (the Iraqis, too, wanted to claim the credit for their own arms industry), was an audacious enterprise. Bull and Cowley set up a company called ATI which farmed out engineering work for a gun nearly three times as high as Nelson’s column to firms across Europe. The evidence of Bull’s associates and of independent witnesses suggests that the British secret services knew about the gun, which was thinly disguised as a petrochemicals project: indeed, Britain’s spies (as well as the Department of Trade and Industry) were specifically warned of its existence. For Bull, Project Babylon was a way of fulfilling his lifelong desire to launch objects into space from the barrel of a gun. For Saddam Hussein, the supergun was only one of many military projects. He wanted nuclear weapons; he wanted chemical weapons; he wanted biological weapons; he wanted space rockets and long-range missiles; and he wanted as many of these things as possible to be made in Iraq. Dozens of Western companies, like Bull’s SRC, knowingly helped to realise Saddam’s military-industrial dreams. If a company exported machine tools, the chances were that those tools would be used to make shells. If it built water treatment plants, the treated water was likely to supply a military complex. The US had supported Iraq in the war against Iran because it was afraid of revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism, and foolishly continued to support Iraq after the cease-fire in 1988. Saddam used his oil revenue and the money his government begged or stole from the West for weapons development, but there was not enough cash to go round. When the money ran out, he invaded Kuwait.
By then, even the most obtuse Western diplomats were beginning to see Saddam as a danger. He had threatened Israel; the supergun and other Iraqi military procurement plots were exposed, and Bull was dead. Even if anyone had accepted the dubious premise that Bull was concerned only with the peaceful use of space, his eagerness to solve any and every problem of ballistics, military or civilian, would have condemned him: there were too many technical similarities between space rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and between peaceful guns and military guns.
President Bush has now announced his plan for curbing the Middle East arms race and freezing the purchase, production and testing of the surface-to-surface missiles which so successfully terrified civilians in the Iran-Iraq war and in the war over Kuwait. Arab countries,including Iraq and Syria, have understandably complained that the Bush plan will leave Israel with a built-in advantage over its Arab enemies. But in the West most people believe, rightly or wrongly, that Israel would not without provocation use its deadliest weapons to destroy one or more of its neighbours. The same cannot be said of Iraq, and that is why Bull was killed.