Africa’s aerospace industry has entered a new era with the launch of a ground-breaking multi-role aviation platform. This marks the first time in Africa’s history that the continent has independently designed and manufactured its own aircraft. The market potential of the aircraft could add up to half a billion dollars to the industrial output of the South African economy.

This comes at a time of growing threats from terrorism, piracy, cross border incursions, climate change, natural disasters and drug trafficking that has fuelled the worldwide need for a low-cost aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and armed patrol system capable of supporting a wide range of operations.

The new category of aircraft will challenge the dominant Western manufacturers because of its low acquisition cost, reduced requirement for back-end support, extensive operational capabilities and greater degree of pilot situational awareness.

The project to develop an advanced high performance reconnaissance light aircraft (AHRLAC) is the initiative of South African defence and aerospace giant Paramount Group together with technical partner Aerosud, South Africa’s largest aeronautical engineering company.

Ivor Ichikowitz, executive chairman of the Paramount Group, said: "The launch of
AHRLAC marks a major milestone for Africa. For the first time in the history of the continent, Africa will be designing and manufacturing its own aircraft and can benefit from the jobs and economic growth associated with a vibrant domestic aerospace industry."

The launch occurs as Western governments are under pressure to cut defence spending, and developing nations seek out affordable aeronautical and defence technology to tackle a variety of emerging security challenges including terrorism, the effects of climate change and increased demand for peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations.

Ichikowitz said: "The future of South Africa’s economic development relies on the development of knowledge-based industries. AHRLAC is a clear indication of this capability. Today we have unveiled an aircraft with global relevance, which was conceived, designed, engineered and will be manufactured right here in South Africa.

"AHRLAC is a cost effective, flexible, multi-role aviation platform that marks the first time a company has successfully bridged the gap between manned and unmanned aircraft."

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become increasingly popular over the last few years due to the absence of serious aerial threats in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq. These platforms are complex and expensive, lack multi-role flexibility and situational awareness which could result in collateral damage.

Ivor Ichikowitz continues: "AHRLAC is a huge technological triumph for South Africa. The reality is that the technology behind UAVs has being oversold and that AHRLAC provides a far more comprehensive solution. For example, AHRLAC has strong defensive capabilities which mean that it can operate in hostile airspace, as well as the ability to carry out operations in domestic airspace because it is piloted.

"This makes it ideally suited to some of the long-term security issues facing the world such as drug trafficking control, piracy, patrol of exclusive economic zones, protection of fisheries and rainforests, coast guard and border surveillance and the monitoring of strategic installations such as oil pipelines.

"The cost effectiveness of this aircraft means that more countries than ever before will be able to access the kind of operational capabilities once restricted to only a handful of superpowers. AHRLAC has important political implications for South Africa in strengthening economic relations and helping the country to be recognised as a strong centre for aerospace innovation and technology. South Africa already leads the world in many fields such as sport and peacekeeping, now we will show the world that we can lead in the aerospace industry."

The development of the aircraft is symbolic of Africa’s growing confidence and increasing economic and political profile on the world stage. Over the last ten years Africa’s economic pulse has quickened, with real GDP rising nearly 5% per year from 2000 – more than twice the pace in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Ichikowitz concluded: "ARHLAC’s development will contribute to South Africa’s industrial base by creating jobs, sharing skills and driving exports to foreign markets – all of which is particularly valuable at a time when the Government is pursuing strategies to boost the country’s industrial capability and growth."