Fictional supervillain plots are just that: fictional. Except that some of the things that governments and even individuals have managed to pull off are just as outlandish as the things we’ve seen in James Bond movies. Here are 10 of these supervillain projects from around the world.
10 A Secret Nuclear Smuggling Network
There are smuggling networks and black market operations which deal in exotic things like animal furs and illicit drugs, but there has probably never been a black market network quite like the one run by Abdul Qadeer Khan. It dealt in information on how to build nuclear weapons as well as the actual nuclear material and equipment to make those weapons.
While countries have peddled nuclear secrets before, Khan is the first individual to have ever built a business providing these services. However, unlike a supervillain in a Bond movie, he didn’t face a dashing MI6 agent trying to stop him. Western intelligence agencies purposely overlooked Pakistan’s nuclear program for years and missed Khan’s nuclear network as well.
Khan is considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and is revered in Pakistan as a hero. While working in Europe, he stole two designs for nuclear centrifuges and brought them back to Pakistan, using these designs to advance Pakistan’s then-fledgling nuclear program.
In the early 1990s, he tried to sell the nuclear technologies Pakistan had used to make a nuclear weapon. Deals were signed with Libya, Iran, and North Korea for Khan’s networks to provide centrifuge parts, bomb material, and a complete blueprint for a compact nuclear warhead that could fit on a missile. Khan appears to have grown rich and egotistical on the profits from his sales, and Pakistani politicians were none the wiser.
The entire network started to unravel when shipments of nuclear weapons to Libya were uncovered in 2003. Further findings implicated Khan, including documents wrapped in bags from an Islamabad dry cleaning company. In 2004, Khan gave a public confession and was put under house arrest in Pakistan—a mere slap on the wrist because he was released just five years later.
9Anthrax In World War II
Dropping biological weapons over an entire nation to starve their populace sounds like something so evil that only a supervillain would advocate for it. During World War II, someone did strongly advocate for such a thing, but it wasn’t Adolf Hitler. It was Winston Churchill championing Operation Vegetarian.
The plan involved British bombers dropping anthrax-contaminated cattle feed over Nazi Germany. The German cows would eat the anthrax and die, depriving the Germans of all their livestock. Starvation would occur rapidly, with more deaths caused by the anthrax infecting humans.
To accomplish this massive undertaking, the British needed to manufacture and inject anthrax into five million linseed cakes. Then bombers would have to be modified to drop this unusual payload. However, smaller tests showed that the project was feasible.
Churchill overruled the concerns of several top scientists and ordered 500,000 anthrax-laced cakes from America in 1944, but World War II ended before the plan could be put into action. Although more tests were conducted on isolated islands as late as the 1950s, the British government favored nuclear weapons, which were far more practical. Postwar development of Operation Vegetarian was not pursued.
8The CIA Mining Operation
In 1968, the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129 suffered an accident and sunk into the crushing depths of the Pacific Ocean. A major loss for the Soviet Union, this represented a golden opportunity for the CIA, which could finally get its hands on Soviet missile technology.
There was just one small problem: The submarine was about 5,000 meters (16,000 ft) underwater. The CIA responded with a massive operation that would have made any supervillain proud. In complete secrecy, they attempted to raise the entire ship from the depths in an operation called Project Azorian.
To cover up the operation, the CIA approached billionaire Howard Hughes, who agreed to help. A massive ship, the Glomar Explorer, was built and ostensibly funded by Hughes, who announced that his new ship would mine the sea floor for the valuable mineral manganese. In fact, the CIA had secretly provided Hughes with the money to build the ship, and its real purpose was to use a gigantic claw to retrieve the sunken Soviet submarine.
Constructed from 1970–1974, the ship finally arrived at the site of the sunken submarine in July 1974. For over one month, the ship attempted to raise the submarine in complete secrecy while curious Soviet ships looked on. In the end, the mission was not entirely successful, with part of the submarine breaking off and sinking back into the depths. No nuclear missiles were recovered.
Before the Americans could try again, the entire operation was exposed in a strange series of events. Paranoid about a mundane burglary which had coincidentally made off with secret Azorian documents, the CIA enlisted the help of the FBI, which attracted media attention. Eventually, someone in the government leaked the entire operation, and the Soviets sent a warship to guard the remains of their submarine. Further salvage operations were canceled. The Glomar Explorer sat gathering dust until the 1990s, when it was purchased for oil drilling. The ship has now been scrapped.
7Control Of The World Copper Market
In some Bond movies, supervillains want to control the supply of a specific commodity, with Goldfinger being a well-known example. In the mid-1980s, a Japanese trader tried to do the same thing with copper, but he didn’t need nuclear weapons to do it.
Yasuo Hamanaka, working for the Sumimoto Corporation, was once known as “Mr. Five Percent” because he controlled approximately that much of the world’s copper supply at the time. Although that doesn’t sound like a lot, copper, unlike gold, is constantly being used up. It is also difficult to move copper to where there are shortages, so prices that rise due to a copper shortage do not necessarily reverse quickly. These factors, along with Hamanaka being the biggest holder of copper at that time, gave him a huge amount of influence over the global copper market.
He used this influence to keep the price of copper high for over a decade, earning a huge amount of money in the process. He accumulated a lot of his copper in secret deals. But for years, the fluctuations in copper prices were explained away and were never linked to his influence, despite increasingly vocal complaints by other copper traders.
However, real-life business isn’t like the movies, and Hamanaka’s plans for world copper domination came to an abrupt end in 1996. Increased market regulations made his position untenable. When he tried to secretly buy up more copper, he was busted.
Everything quickly unraveled from there. Sumimoto fired Hamanaka, and he was jailed for fraud. Then Sumimoto learned they had been left with nearly $2 billion in debt as the price of copper (and all of Sumimoto’s massive copper holdings) went into free fall.
6Saddam Hussein’s Supergun
In the late 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein wanted a weapon that could strike farther than any he had in his arsenal at the time. So like a Bond villain, he turned to outsize ideas.
Saddam commissioned Canadian physicist and engineer Gerald Bull, who specialized in long-range artillery and had worked for Iraq in the past, to build a gigantic supergun called the Babylon gun. This weapon would fire artillery shells thousands of kilometers and would be able to fire satellites into orbit.
The final gun design had a barrel 150 meters (500 ft) long with a diameter of 1 meter (3 ft). It was expected to launch a 600-kilogram (1,300 lb) projectile 1,000 kilometers (600 mi) using 9 metric tons of special propellant. The recoil of the gun would have been enormous, registering on seismic sensors around the world. Iraqi defector General Hussein Kamel al-Majeed claimed that Saddam planned several missions for the gun, including launching nuclear weapons and shooting down satellites.
A smaller, 350 mm prototype of the supergun was built. But before construction on the larger gun could begin, Bull was killed by the Israelis in 1990 because he was working to improve Iraq’s more mundane ballistic missiles. The same year, Saddam invaded Kuwait and was crushed by the US. Ultimately, the supergun project was dismantled.
Remember in the Bond film Moonraker where supervillain Hugo Drax had a stealth space station in orbit that was invisible to the US military? The US military actually had such a program—code-named Misty—to secretly deploy stealth satellites into space to spy on enemies. These satellites couldn’t be seen through telescopes or tracked with radar.
The first satellite was launched by a space shuttle in 1990. But just a few days later, the satellite apparently exploded. Believing that this was an ordinary spy satellite, both Russian and American space experts thought that was the end. In fact, the explosion had been faked, and the satellite had deployed a stealth shield to hide itself while the experts were distracted by the explosion.
Less than a year later, however, the satellite was spotted briefly by amateur astronomers while it was maneuvering in space. As late as five years later, other sightings were reported, again by amateurs. The military learned a lesson. When the next Misty satellite was launched in 1999, it contained a decoy that threw off the civilian astronomers for a while.
However, at a cost of nearly $10 billion, these spy satellites weren’t useful enough in real life to justify the massive expense. The project was canceled in 2007.
4X-Ray Lasers Powered By Nuclear Explosions
During the Cold War, the US government pursued a superweapon under the aegis of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Called Project Excalibur, it was supposed to use X-ray lasers powered by nuclear weapons to destroy Soviet ballistic missiles. The project was proposed by Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who believed that a series of these weapons could secure the US against a missile attack by the Soviets.
The weapon consisted of a nuclear weapon with a modified casing containing hundreds of solid lasing mediums. The explosion of the nuclear weapon would dump energy into the mediums, which would be excited and produce intense beams of X-rays, frying a huge number of Soviet missiles with every atomic detonation.
The Outer Space Treaty prohibited nuclear weapons in space, so the X-ray laser devices needed to be stored on the ground. X-rays are also absorbed by the atmosphere after just a short distance, which meant that the devices had to be deployed on rockets in Western nations closer to the Soviet Union, such as Britain.
Ten tests were conducted to see if nuclear explosions could be used to generate X-rays. Although there was some success in later tests, the end of the Cold War also heralded the end of the program. It was canceled in 1992.
3An International Villain Organization For Hire
The Bond movie Thunderball introduced SPECTRE, a crime syndicate and terrorist organization for hire that was led by an evil genius. While the real-life Paladin Group didn’t steal nuclear weapons or hold Britain for ransom, they were a mercenary organization founded by the nearly mythical ex-Nazi soldier Otto Skorzeny, who must have been an evil genius to pull off as many feats as he did.
Formed by the scar-faced Skorzeny in the 1960s, the Paladin Group was envisioned as a global organization of mercenaries, who were neither military troops nor civilian spies. The organization specialized in training and equipping unsavory characters. In the geopolitical upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, there were many dictatorships and failing governments around the world that wanted mercenaries and killers, demands that the Paladin Group was prepared to service.
Unlike SPECTRE, the Paladin Group wasn’t immortal. With the deaths of both Skorzeny and his patron, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, the group appears to have faded into history.
2The Balloon Bomb To Destroy Soviet Harvests
The US once had a weapon, the E77 balloon bomb, that could potentially wipe out crops and livestock worldwide using biological agents. Inspired by Japanese balloon attacks on the US during World War II, the Americans combined a harmless leaflet-dropping balloon with a 40-kilogram (80 lb) payload of stem rust disease, which would destroy wheat harvests.
The stem rust was coated on turkey feathers, which would be released when the balloon had risen and then dropped to a predetermined height. Almost 5,000 of these weapons were ordered in 1950, enough to destroy more than 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 mi2) of cropland.
Designed to secretly destroy Soviet or Chinese agriculture, the balloons were tested over a decade and ready to deploy. However, the program was suspended in 1960. Bombs dropped by aircraft had become the favored delivery method of stem rust. As far as we know, all research into biological warfare ended in the US in 1969.
1The US Government Is Purposely Spreading Malware
In 2012, leaked documents from Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency wasn’t just passively tapping phone lines and Internet connections. The NSA has been systematically infecting tens of thousands of computers with malware since 2010, with hopes to eventually infect millions of computers. This malware steals information and opens up computer networks to outside influence.
An automated system called TURBINE is spreading the implants and has allowed the NSA to expand their ambitions from just a few hundred priority targets to potentially millions of computer systems. In internal documents, the NSA claims that the system would operate like a human brain, automatically deciding what it would use to retrieve information from compromised computers.
The system is also user-friendly. A human overseer can ask a computer about an application it’s running without being overwhelmed with coding minutiae. The entire villainous operation could put the safety of the Internet at risk, as holes in security created by the TURBINE malware make further intrusions by other organizations and individuals more likely to succeed.
Sam Derwin is just your ordinary, debt-burdened college student struggling to get by!