WASHINGTON — If MacGyver was a trailer, he’d be the U.S. Army’s Ex Lab — a mobile, self-contained unit that comes with additive manufacturing tools, 3D printers, welding capabilities and engineering expertise to solve problems for soldiers in the field.
Ex Lab — short for the Expeditionary Lab of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force — is nearly 10 years old and has been deployed downrange, mostly in Afghanistan, for almost all its life. And it’s still helping soldiers in austere environments. Being able to operate without all the creature comforts of a large, forward-operating base is critical for the future fight, as units will be expected to stay on the move and function without logistics support infrastructure.
Ex Lab comes with secure communications and a secure power source, Col. Joe Bookard, the Rapid Equipping Force’s director, told Defense News in a recent interview at the outfit’s headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
One of Bookard’s favorite inventions to come out of the Ex Lab is a mortar-lifting strap that pulls a mortar weapon out of the ground after it’s been fired many times over. As mortars are fired, the unit becomes entrenched and can be difficult to dig out, Bookard explained. The lab designed the strap, which is placed underneath the weapon and is pulled to lift the unit out of the ground.
It’s a simple, inexpensive and useful solution, Bookard said, and the Rapid Equipping Force, or REF, is recommending its incorporation with mortar weapons deployed with to the larger force.
The REF is brainstorming where else the Ex Lab might be useful following its time in Afghanistan, Bookard said, specifically in the Indo-Pacific region to support the Army’s Pacific Pathways program. Pacific Pathways sends soldiers hopping across countries in the region for exercises and training events with counterparts in host nations.
While the REF doesn’t have a requirement to produce repair parts or spares at the tactical edge using the Ex Lab, it is helping Army Materiel Command consider how such a capability could support sustainment without a long logistics tail, Bookard said.
The REF was established during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to rapidly delivery capabilities to the war fighter. As the Army began scaling back its operations there, the organization’s fate became unknown. But the REF has managed to continue responding to urgent requests, not just for counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East, but also for soldiers operating from Europe to Africa to the Indo-Pacific region.
Last year, the REF addressed 400 requirements sent from combatant commanders to address operational capability gaps, according to Bookard. Among some of the recent success stories is the tiny Black Hornet, an unmanned aircraft system that is now a program of record and was fielded as the Soldier Borne Sensor.
The REF is also working to transition two hand-held counter-UAS capabilities — the Drone Buster and the Drone Defender — to the larger force as official programs.
The REF is also focused on assisting soldiers in the ares of mission command capabilities, force protection, intelligence and sustainment, Bookard said. That includes fielding non-line-of-sight radios and other communications capabilities to units, such as the new security force assistance brigades deployed in Afghanistan, as well as providing power generation and water purification technology to units in Africa.
The REF will continue to fill the niche of urgently supplying soldiers with capabilities to meet immediate needs while they are deployed. In a way, Bookard said, the REF has been doing what Army Futures Command is doing now, but on a smaller scale — providing capabilities that are rapidly procured to a small number of soldiers for evaluation, and then refining those capabilities as the need or technology changes.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.