The U.S. Army is reviewing a patent it recently obtained for a rifle attachment that could launch biological agents. Several arms control experts had raised concern that developing the device might violate the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Obtaining the patent, however, does not appear to violate the BWC, which bans all biological weapons and equipment to use them.
On February 25, the U.S. Army received Patent #6,523,478 for a “rifle-launched non-lethal cargo dispenser.” The device, according to the patent description, is designed to launch projectiles, especially so-called nonlethal aerosols, “during combat or non-combat operations.”
Although a number of the potential projectiles listed on the patent description, such as dyes and smoke, would probably be legal under international law, the patent specifically lists “biological agents” as one of the aerosols the invention is designed to launch. The development of such a weapon might violate the BWC, which explicitly bans the development of equipment to deliver biological weapons.
Article I of the BWC states that states-parties undertake “never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain…[w]eapons, equipment, or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”
It would be very difficult to argue that developing equipment designed to disperse biological agents—even nonlethal ones—does not violate the BWC, Ambassador James Leonard, the lead U.S. negotiator during the drafting of the treaty, said in a May 21 interview. There is some disagreement among experts, however, about whether the BWC applies to so-called nonlethal biological agents. Although it is generally agreed that the treaty prohibits biological agents that could cause harm to humans, some experts say nonlethal agents, such as agents designed to consume oil for cleaning up oil spills, are legal. Others disagree.
The Department of Defense is reviewing the patent and has not yet determined if and how the invention will be used, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Sewell confirmed May 28.
So far, the debate over the newly patented device is largely theoretical. Experts say that applying for and receiving a patent might only indicate a wish to protect an idea. Many patented inventions are never developed.