GERALD V. BULL spent his life perfecting the most deadly, if unglamorous, weapon of modern warfare -- artillery. When ground combat begins in the Persian Gulf war, long-range 155mm howitzers designed by Bull and based on research he carried out under Pentagon contract may pose the greatest threat to the opposing force. Unfortunately, the Bull cannons are being aimed by Iraq at U.S. and allied ground troops in Saudi Arabia.

This unwholesome turn of events was brought about not only by Bull himself -- a man with torn loyalties and an immense ego -- but also by backstage U.S. policies that have converged to put these advanced weapons into the hands of Saddam Hussein while denying them to U.S. forces.

The sleek design of Bull's ERFB (Extended-Range Full-Bore) shells outreach by at least six miles the guns deployed by U.S. and allied forces in the gulf. U.S. Marines on the Saudi border have been forced to retreat from incoming Iraqi fire because the Iraqi shells travel farther than their own.

In a cruel twist of fate, the U.S. Army rejected Bull's designs in the 1970s, and Bull, increasingly bitter and cynical, turned to pariah states like Iraq and South Africa, which seized on his revolutionary ideas to swiftly -- and relatively cheaply -- expand their military power.

In yet another twist, Bull's obsessive drive to build his long-dreamed of supergun may have brought on his assassination in Belgium last March 22. {See story on Page C4.}

Bull's ultimate gun design, also originally funded by the U.S. military, was a huge "supercannon," capable of launching satellites into space. Israeli intelligence feared the supergun. Papers found on Bull's body (planted by his assassins, several intelligence sources believe), exposed a network of companies across Europe building components for Iraq for a 450-foot-long supercannon with a muzzle diameter of 1,000 milimeters (more than three feet) and a potential range of 1,000 miles. The revelations about the supergun brought Bull in death the international recognition he so long had sought.

When it came to artillery, Bull's name was synonymous with innovation. Virtually every significant development in artillery since World War II was either his own invention or his improvement. National leaders trained in the Soviet doctrine of massed artillery barrages paid Bull millions for his ideas. Iraq's Saddam was only one of many who rewarded Bull's genius. Saddam has always valued artillery: some 200,000 Iranians died under his artillery, half the casualties of the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war. When Saddam wanted to strengthen Iraq's armies, he turned to Bull.

Born in Canada in 1928, Bull was orphaned at 3 and endured a troubled childhood. But he earned a PhD in aerodynamics from the University of Toronto at the age of 22 and began a career as a brilliant, if prickly, weapons scientist. "Basically," says longtime friend Dr. Charles Murphy of the U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory, "he was always right and you were wrong."

Bull's brief early work for the U.S. military was crowned by a signal achievement: Assisted by the then-chief of Army research and development, Lt. Gen. Arthur Trudeau, Bull designed a 120-foot-long gun that in the mid-1960s fired a projectile 112 miles into space -- still a world record. But when the Vietnam War and the space program's use of rockets to launch satellites choked off funds for further tests, Bull blamed the Americans for thwarting his hopes to create a satellite-launching supergun.

He set out to develop and market conventional artillery on his own. Bull's Space Research Corp. (SRC), on an 8,000-acre compound straddling the U.S.-Canadian border near the Vermont hamlet of North Troy, quickly got some $11 million in U.S. defense research contracts. In two competitions, his revolutionary 155mm-shell design outshot the U.S. Army's M198 cannon system "hands down," according to knowledgeable sources. But the Army spurned his system and stuck with its own less powerful guns. However, in the 1970s and '80s, U.S. officials quietly sent South Africa, Iraq and China to Bull's door, allowing them to equip their forces with the long-range cannons the Pentagon wouldn't buy. South Africa sought U.S. help after forces of the Marxist government of Angola and its Cuban allies used Soviet artillery and rocket lauchers to repel a South African-led invasion of Angola.

According to former CIA officers involved in the operation and U.S. law enforcement officials who later probed it, a U.S. Marine major, John J. Clancey III, who was part of the CIA's covert "Angola Task Force," led the South Africans to Bull.

Bull's SRC and Armscor, a South African munitions maker, signed a contract on April 7, 1976 for advanced artillery shells. With what sources describe as help from his original mentor, Gen. Trudeau, Bull quickly obtained a "letter of waiver" from the State Department's Office at Munitions Control (OMC) in Arlington, allowing SRC to export shell "forgings" without an OMC license. Bull also quickly got approval for an order of 65,000 rough-finished 155mm shells from the U.S. Army munitions plant in Scranton, Pa., and had them shipped to the Vermont complex, where they were further machined and refined. According to his son Michel, Bull had been "led to believe it was the thing to do . . . that the U.S. had a passive policy to more or less favor these type of things in order to save the last bastion of capitalism in Africa."

But when press reports later revealed that the munitions had gone to South Africa despite a U.S. trade embargo, the Customs Service began probing SRC. Bull enlisted Trudeau, who had once headed Army intelligence, and Richard Bissell, former deputy director of the CIA, to take his case to the highest levels of the Carter administration. Within a few months, Lawrence Curtis, the Customs agent who headed the Bull probe, found that his ambitious plans for wide-ranging indictments of numerous individuals and firms in three countries for arms-export crimes had come unraveled.

Bull and one other individual were allowed to plead to reduced charges, a move that resolved the case quickly but also eliminated any possibility that a trial could produce potentially embarrassing revelations about any involvement of U.S. agencies with Bull's munitions exports.

"I was totally surprised, very disappointed and bewildered," says Curtis. Trudeau has repeatedly declined to be interviewed about his work for Bull.

The House subcommittee on Africa subsequently discovered that State's OMC had been told of the Bull-South Africa scheme three years before the shipments were reported publicly -- and had done nothing. "The preponderance of evidence was that {through} the CIA {introduction}, the United States was turning a blind eye," recalls subcommittee chairman Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) "The United States government was totally negligent in enforcing American law."

Bull pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling 30,000 shells, two cannon barrels and a radar van to South Africa without a license. Federal prosecutors did not recommend jail, but the judge put him away for six months anyway, a ruling Bull's Canadian attorney, Richard Holden, later said "just absolutely infuriated" Bull. When he left jail in 1981, Bull was contemptuous of the United States, telling a Canadian interviewer, "The U.S. has obsolete conventional weapons and no morale in their armed forces. They couldn't defeat Timbuktu in a fight." Even though Bull's U.S. and Canadian operations had shut down after going bankrupt, the scientist's reputation was spreading. He reopened his enterprise in Brussels and soon prospered, taking in more than $100 million in contracts in the 1980s. His designs for a towed 155mm howitzer with a range of 24 miles were sold to Austria's state-owned Voest Alpine steel works for $5 million. As early as 1979, Bull had advised the Austrians to market the gun in Iraq. In 1982, Voest Alpine reported the sale of 200 of the cannons, now called GHN-45s, to Jordan.

But the Austrian government knew the actual buyer was Saddam. According to a still-classified Austrian report, Saddam, whose war with Iran had bogged down, met with the Austrian interior minister in April 1982 and demanded to know, "Where are our guns? Can't you speed up delivery? We require them urgently."

Voest Alpine was Austria's largest state-owned industry. But facing slumping sales and layoffs, it made a risky secret decision to violate neutral Austria's ban on selling weapons to belligerents and in the next few years sold Bull cannons not only to Iraq, but also to Iran. Today, two former Austrian chancellors and various other cabinet ministers have become the subject of the largest criminal investigation in Austrian history.

Documents and records in the Voest Alpine sale of 200 GH N-45s to Iran indicate that the Reagan administration, pursuing its "tilt" toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, quietly eased the sale of the guns to Iraq but sought to prevent the Austrians from selling Bull's guns to Iran.

In an unusual move in early April 1986, CIA and State Department officials showed Austria's ambassador to Washington classified satellite photographs of 15 GHN-45s at Iran's Isfahan artillery training center. A CIA narrative stamped "TOP SECRET -- SENSITIVE" with the photos declared, "We believe that significant amounts of the extended-range full-bore ammunition were purchased along with the guns." But the Iranians got an estimated 180 GHN-45s anyway.

Meanwhile, Bull began to reap business with China. The Chinese had long been fascinated with Bull. Indeed, during a visit to a test range in northern Manchuria in 1983, he was amazed to find that the Chinese had collected all his academic papers dating back to the early 1950s. During four years working with the Chinese arms maker Norinco to set up a full production line for 155mm cannons, Bull was entertained lavishly, had his picture taken with Deng Xiaoping, and even taught a course at Nanjing University. But his China work posed legal risks. The U.S. Congress had made him a naturalized citizen in the early 1970s, largely because of his access to classified national-security information. This meant he needed a munitions-control license if any technology to set up production was of U.S. origin or substantially American-made. Trudeau went on another high-level Washington mission for Bull.

In April 1982, Trudeau and Bull protege Denis Lyster met with Hugh Montgomery, director of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and pressed the view that since all the technology was Canadian, no U.S. export license would be needed for the China project.

Although officials of State's Office of Munitions Control just a month earlier had testified to a House subcommittee that Bull's technology was "indeed American," nothing was done to prevent Bull from pursuing the Chinese project; OMC eventually issued him an export license for some of the computer-related data.

By 1984, Bull, aided by Voest Alpine, had the China 155mm project well underway. Customs agent Curtis, acting on a tip, stopped Lyster at a border crossing from Canada. Agents found in his briefcase a signed $25-million contract to send ERFB technology to China. Every page bore the initials GVB -- Gerald V. Bull.

Customs then seized hundreds of documents and other data from Lyster's home and office, all showing repeated delivery of U.S. technology to China. In August 1984, a federal grand jury was empaneled in Rutland, Vt., to hear evidence in the case.

OMC officials later "advised Curtis that 85-90 percent of 103 documented violations do constitute U.S. Munitions List technology and/or technical assistance," a Customs report stated. But once again, Curtis found his investigation stymied by other federal agencies. Bull's lawyer, Holden, later said federal prosecutors told him they were "just going through the motions" of an investigation.

"The case simply died," says a still-frustrated Curtis, who resigned from the agency in disgust last July.

A few months later, in the summer of 1985, a major inter-departmental meeting was convened at the Pentagon to discuss expanding U.S. munitions exports to China. According to a source who was present, the group decided to "actively" help rebuild the Chinese military and to "overlook . . . prior indiscretions by private companies."

By 1986, the Pentagon was even helping complete China's Bull-designed 155mm production line. According to a U.S. defense consultant involved in the project, the Army issued a U.S.-funded foreign military sales contract to a California firm to provide China a "155mm artillery fuse manufacturing line." "Initially, I was surprised," this consultant said, "I thought Norinco only made 130s {smaller guns}, so why were they building 155mm fuses when they didn't have 155s? Well, the U.S. government knew they were building 155s prior to 1986." Barely a year later, said the consultant and Israeli intelligence sources, Norinco had made its first sale of the so-called WAC 21, Bull-designed guns -- to Iraq. According to a person associated with Bull's work in Iraq, the scientist soon caught the attention of Kamil Husayn, an influential cousin and son-in-law of Saddam, with a proposal that Bull, Norinco and a Spanish firm build a huge 203mm self-propelled howitzer for Iraq.

A prototype, called the Al-Fao, was displayed to foreigners at a Baghdad weapons show in 1989; it is not known whether this big cannon is in production. But by early summer 1988, Bull had signed contracts with Iraq to produce not only conventional artillery, but also the 1,000mm supergun.

According to former Bull engineer Christopher Cowley, who worked in Iraq's new cannon-shell and gun-barrel factories, Saddam's "long-term objective" was to insure that "his army on a day-to-day basis cannot be affected by an arms embargo."

Cowley says he concluded that Saddam has the capability to make shells, propellant, explosives, fuses, even replacement barrels. "He has all of the artillery that he would require. So, in that area he certainly is self-sufficient."

Christopher Foss, editor of Jane's Armour and Artillery in London, who attended the May 1989 Baghdad weapons show where the 203mm cannon was shown, said Iraq's homegrown, Bull-designed artillery systems astonished many western experts.

Cowley and others say Bull also helped Saddam modernize his aging arsenal of Soviet-made 130mm cannons by designing a kit, made in Yugoslavia, allowing the conversion of up to 1,000 old guns with new 155mm barrels.

Of an estimated 3,700 Iraqi artillery pieces, some 520 are Bull-designed long-range 155s: 200 South African G-5s and G-6s, 200 Austrian GHN-45s and about 120 Chinese WAC 21s. All the guns, many with interchangeable shells and barrels, can outshoot U.S. and coalition guns. Saddam's artillery forces are armed with chemical warheads, although Iraq is not reported to have fired any so far. The Desert Storm air campaign has now begun to target Saddam's artillery, although coalition briefers have declined to comment on the Iraqi artillery threat.

Cowley and Michel Bull say they kept the State Department informed of their Iraqi artillery work. Cowley said they met with OMC officials in March and April 1988, before work began on the Al-Fao gun. "I personally went to OMC many times," said Michel Bull.

Senior State Department officials described Gerald Bull as little more than a minor irritation after his 1980 conviction. Richard Clarke, assistant secretary of state for political/military affairs, said in a recent interview that he had reviewed the department's Bull file and could discount any CIA role in the South African arms deal.

Clarke said Bull "was no longer associated" with "his former company" after leaving -- an assertion at odds with the dozens of cables on Bull's activities that flowed between the DIA, CIA, NSA, State Department and the White House, and by State Department memos of Hugh Montgomery.

Clarke further maintained that Bull was not a U.S. citizen and therefore not subject to OMC jurisdiction. Yet the first State Department cable from the U.S. Embassy in Brussels on Bull's murder reported that Bull held U.S. passport No. 012521295, issued in November 1985 in Washington.

"When he died, he was an American citizen," said Bull's lawyer, Holden.

Rep. Wolpe, who chaired the 1982 Bull investigation, sent a strongly worded letter last September to Clarke's office calling for tighter U.S. technology-export controls. Wrote Wolpe: "We are finding American technology finding its way from South Africa into the hands of other terrorist countries like Iraq . . . a situation where American soldiers are facing cannon, the technology of which was American made." Wolpe has not received a reply.

Scott Malone is an investigative reporter for PBS' Frontline which will air a program about Gerald Bull this Tuesday. David Yalevy, an Israeli journalist, was a Time correspondent for 19 years. Sam Hemingway is a reporter at the Burlington (Vt.) Free-Press.