REF Lab Finds Fix for MRAP Weakness


Tire StemMine 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.”

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Matt Cox
Matthew Cox is a reporter at He can be reached at
  • Peter

    So, a cover for the tyre valve. Now, I’m not being cocky, but I could do that with a small piece of sheet steel, a drill, a thread tap and a couple of bolts in about five minutes.

    And, as a bonus, I would do it for half, yes half! of the 2.5 million this cost.

    Also how did the things get sent out there in the first place with such a glaring weakness!

    • Riceball

      The part doesn’t cost 2.5 million, the labs cost that much, I’m sure the actual parts cost is pretty low. And while you could do the same with a bit of sheet metal and some misc. tools that only works if you plan on doing it for one or two MRAPS, when you’re talking about the whole fleet in theater then using a CNC machine to make the part becomes a whole lot cheaper and far more efficient.

      • Curt

        Not to mention that they are all exactly the same, fully interchangeable, are fully documented in the Army’s supply system, and can be provided to the manufacturer of the tire valve so that they can apply the fix to future wheel orders.

    • tiger

      Even cheaper just to have drivers who can drive decently. How often do you break a valve stem?

      • Charlie

        Quite often in those environments actually. But I guess you’d actually have to deploy to know.

      • Bernard

        I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that you’ve never driven in a war zone before… :-

        • tiger

          No, but I would not use that lame excuse to explain poor driver control.

          • Vaporhead

            Stick to the black top Tiger, as it’s obvious you have zero clue as to what you are talking about. I’m sorry to say, but the mountains and roads of A-Stan are not paved.

    • Kuzinov

      Really? Can you guarentee it doesn’t create another issue? Can youy get it into the inventory system? Can you test it under the same exact conditions in the field and modify the design in the field? I’ll guess not.

      It’s nice to see you noticed the “glaring weakness” after reading the article. Did it dawn on you that they ran into issues that didn’t affect the tire valve until it went to Afghanistan?

      I’m actually impressed that they have a lab to develop repairs, revisions, and improved kit in the field that combines 3d printing and machining for such a relatively small price. Then again, I’m not an armchair commander.

    • You’re saying you could go out to the field, diagnose any problem on any vehicle, design and build a fix for whatever problem you encounter, document the solution for fleetwide application and all for a few bucks? As a taxpayer, I have to ask, why aren’t you doing it?

    • Harley

      There are a multitude of things the lab has created, fixed, and improved since it was shipped to the field. Try googling (or whatever search mechanism you want to use) ExLab/Ex Lab/Expeditionary Lab. And no, they don’t get paid by product created.

  • Taylor

    Some truth to what Peter is saying. But I’m sure there have been other uses for the lab besides that. Having a sheetmetal shop in Afganistan would be of limited use and costly too. Hoping for run-flat, blast resistant tires soon. That seems better.

    • Harley

      There are a multitude of things the lab has created, fixed, and improved since it was shipped to the field. Try googling (or whatever search mechanism you want to use) ExLab/Ex Lab/Expeditionary Lab.

  • blight_

    Let me guess, they’re using Prestas like on a bus (or a bicycle) tire?!

  • C-LOw

    Farmers do it with a cut section of steel pipe and a welder

    • When most recruits came off the farms, they brought with them centuries of inventive wisdom and great sharp-shooting skills. One reason our fighters were so very awesome at what they did with just a few months of boot camp. In Iraq, those same recruits found makeshift ways to improvise against road-side bombs. They welded steel onto their humvees. They didn’t wait for DOD, They embarrassed DOD and took the initiative to save their lives. Then MRAP’s showed up several months or a year or two later. Hats off and salutes to American ingenuity of the common service person, off the street and into the trenches/werever. They manage to find ways to survive and win no matter what the bureaucrats fuck-up.

  • Herk910

    I am wondering why the wheel area wasn’t recessed inside the outer rim and tire to protect the valve stem to start with instead of being extended beyond the protection of the rim and tire?

  • Frank

    How incredible that such as blatantly obvious design flaw ever made it to the field! Probably not problem if they only ever drove on the road….”nah, they will never need to take them off -road…”

    • Chuck

      You’ve never worked on a complicated project and then found a simple mistake after it was done? I’m sure it’s comforting to believe that only idiots ever miss something, but that’s just not reality.

  • eric

    With the fast progress of 3d printing this is a very interesting experiment. The military could save a lot of transport-, inventory costs and time by adding this facility to the troops deployed in, especially, warzones. Smart, forward thinking from the DOD.

  • TonyC.

    Why don’t MRAP’s have shielded reinflators. like the 2.5ton trucks? Seems that this problem should not exist!

    • blight_

      Perhaps the MRAPs weren’t intended to be used off-road.

      Nope, just to suppress people in cities and on paved roads between major cities. Can’t go off-road, that’s where the bad guys live.

  • oblatt1

    1.5 million and six weeks that the average afghan garage can do in 30 minutes sounds about right.

  • MAJ C

    I’m with the Rapid Equipping Force in Bagram, Afghanistan. Having the capability to rapidly prototype in forward, austere locations is a revolutionary concept in the Army. We are trying to connect the Soldier to the scientist at the forward edge of the battlefiled to rapidly solve problems. Imagine a Soldier at a Forward Operating Base in the middle of nowhere walking up to a lab with a problem and walking away with a prototype? We just fabricated a Surefire flashlight mounting bracket for a handheld mine detector for some EOD guys in less than 5 days! Glad to see you guys are as excited about it as we are.

    • Matt

      As a prior soldier (92-05), and current 3D Printer owner/aficionado, this is bad ass.

    • tmb2

      I used a similar service at KAF 3 years ago. I needed modified anchors for antennas we were placing on rooftops and the AFSB welding shop had to remanufacture scraps into the shapes we needed. It was a little rough making it work and I can imagine how much better it would have gone if they had a printer to make the design I needed.

    • blight_

      Thought one of the good things Roman legions had going for them in sieges was their engineers. I suppose it’s full circle.

      • tmb2

        In the Legion the soldiers were the engineers. The grunts did all of their own construction work.

        • blight_

          True, but there were masterminds like Vitruvius who probably would be architect/engineers today. Pretty awesome stuff, and it’s sad that so little of the more advanced Roman technology survived, or that the things that we know the ancients could make are lost to history.

          Re the different types of engineers, I should re-read De Rei Militari…

        • Chuck

          They did all their own grunt work, even to the extent that they had embedded specialists beyond just battlefield engineers. They also had embedded:

          Leather workers

          The embedded specialists got some special treatment (e.g. a blacksmith got to go do blacksmith work instead of digging latrines), but they all fought in the same ranks together. The only exception was that the trained engineers did tend to be officers, since engineering took some education. But I’m sure there were plenty of legionaries who got a pretty good feel for battlefield engineering through simple experience, and didn’t have so much formal training.

          It was all impressively self-contained. Especially interesting was the fact that they didn’t like to trust building roads, camps, siegeworks, catapults, etc. to slaves or auxiliaries. If they were going to have to really rely on something, they wanted legionaries to build it.

          • blight_

            Or contractors.

  • Peter

    No, I stand by what I said. OK, it only relates to this one, specific issue so if the lab can come up with a huge number of in-field solutions then maybe the cost starts to make sense. But, in this one case it should have been a stupidly easy fix at a stupidly low cost. And that is disregarding the other (main!) point as to how this ever got into the field in the first place.

    Sorry but I still think the US taxpayer is getting ripped off here. I know in the overall budget it looks like loose change but even so….

    • Chuck

      You can’t expect equipment to get designed and out into the field without some problems. And, unfortunately, human nature tells us that some of the problems will be dreadfully obvious (at least in hindsight). So the right answer is to have systems to minimize problems before deployment AND deal with problems after deployment. We could certainly decide to do it the old way — pretend every piece of equipment gets developed perfectly and that any problems in the field are really just soldiers being whiners, but that doesn’t seem so practical to me.

    • Vaporhead

      Exactly how much did a taxpayer pay for this fix? If I calculated this correctly, there are 137 million tax payers in the U.S. divided by the 1.5 mil for the lab( which will be used for other things). That comes to a whopping .01 cents per taxpayer. If you are so concerned, I will go ahead and chip in your .01 cents for this project. That work?

  • tiger

    Nice fix, but Is not the plan to scrap MRAP’s ?

    • tmb2

      Lots of them, but not all. There is still a full year or so left in OEF so this is still useful. After the war the Army will still keep a fair number in the inventory.

  • XYZ

    Please fix the rampant typos in the quote from Pascual

  • Curtis

    This fix is cheaper and faster than going back to the manufacturer, requesting a change to the wheel, shipping new wheels or components from the wheel manufacturer, and installing the parts as MRAPS come in for maintenance. 2.3M worth of fabrication equipment saved us probably 100M worth of beuracratic costs. Little things like this would probably never been addressed via the usual supply system. There would have been a flyer sent down to the units “CAUTION: Do not rub walls with MRAP tires. damage to tires could result.”

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  • joe

    seriously..these tires are designed to not go flat…Im not buying this at all