Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles are tough but their tires have not faired well in Afghanistan. Last year, the air valves that protrude off of MRAP tires were breaking easily when the vehicles brushed up against other vehicles or dirt walls, causing the tires to go flat and bringing vehicles to a halt.
The Rapid Equipping Force soldiers and engineers, working out of the REF's Expeditionary Lab in Afghanistan, found out about the problem last year and and ginned up a simple, bolt-on fix that has saved a lot of tires since then, Master Sgt. Willian Pascual, operations NCO with the REF at Fort Belvoir, Va.
"The trucks run up against the wall or a berm or something and that little stem valve gets broken, tire goes flat and the unit is left out there until another unit can help pick them up," Pascual told reporters during at an Oct. 16 tour of one of the labs at Belvoir.
REF officials at the lab designed several prototype covers for the valves, using the lab's 3D printer to build them out of plastic. They fit tested them, made changes and then milled them out of alluminum for testing. It took about five weeks to create a finished product.
The REF deployed two of these highly-mobile labs to Afghanistan last year. These "Ex Labs" cost about $2.8 million each and include state-of-the-art equipment such as a Rapid Prototyping 3D Printer, a machine that can produce plastic parts that may not even exist in the current inventory. There’s also a similar device known as a Computer Numerical Control Machining system for producing parts and components from steel and aluminum.
In addition to the high-tech prototyping equipment, the labs include portable equipment carts filled with tools such as plasma cutters for precision metal cutting, welders, magnetic mounted drill-presses, electric hacksaws, routers, circular saws and jig saws.
"We can build stuff out of plastic; w can build stuff out of metal," Pascual said. "We can well, we can help with their electronic components ... and we can help them with their kit work -- say their is a certain part of their bag they need moved from one part to the other, we can do that as well."
The labs also include satellite communications equipment for conducting video teleconferences with REF officials and engineers in the states. Once in theater, these expeditionary labs can be transported by truck or airlifted by helicopter to wherever they are needed.
As the Pentagon begins to drastically scale down its presense in Afghainstan, the REF may shrink in size but these labs can be used anywhere troops are deployed, said REF Director Col. Steven Sliwa.
"I'm pretty sure that the Army wants to resource its operations globally," Sliwa said. " Under this new fiscal environment ... what is the right size of the REF? How do we expand and contract so we are right sized but also to be able to grow to the required size in order to meet the demands of any operation? We don't want to lose the 12 years of lessons that we have learned."