The result is a new aircraft being produced in a new factory in a venture that is unique for Africa. This is the Ahrlac (Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft) and its armed variant, the Mwari. The aircraft is being developed and produced at Wonderboom Airport, north of Pretoria, by Ahrlac Holdings, which is co-owned by Paramount.
“We already have more than one launch customer onboard,” says Paramount without disclosing any specifics. Production of customer aircraft has begun, the company says, and the first is expected to roll off the assembly line at Wonderboom late in the second quarter.
Two prototypes have already flown, built at Aerosud’s aerospace innovation center in Pretoria then moved to Wonderboom for flight-testing. The first prototype, called the XDM, first flew in July 2014 and has completed 350 hr. of flight-testing. The second, production-representative prototype, the PDM, first flew in July 2017 and incorporates several improvements.
The production-ready PDM has retractable landing gear; a revised cockpit canopy; twin Martin-Baker ejection seats and onboard oxygen-generating system; a new propeller and exhaust system to reduce noise; and an open-architecture “plug-and-play” avionics system. The aircraft also features improved handling for maneuvers, says Paramount.
The XDM is “performing brilliantly,” the company says, “so its useful life is constantly being extended by progressively upgrading it to production standards.” The Ahrlac was digitally prototyped using the latest Dassault Systemes Catia design modules and extensive simulation. “By the time we built the first prototype, that aircraft was built to production-like standards. The second prototype is fully to production standards,” says Paul Potgieter, director of Ahrlac Holdings.
Development of the Ahrlac was started at Aerosud’s facility, and the South African aerostructures company remains closely involved, but the program has fully transitioned to the new factory at Wonderboom. Opened in March 2017, this 15,000-m² (161,000-ft.²) facility is designed to produce up to two aircraft a month. The shop-floor processes and systems incorporate Aerosud’s experience producing parts for Airbus and Boeing.
South Africa’s defense industry learned to become self-sufficient in the 1980s and ’90s when an arms embargo was imposed on the country in an effort to end the apartheid regime. While companies such as Aerosud developed the ability to make sophisticated modifications to existing aircraft, much of the country’s aerospace supply chain ceased to exist.
This led to a push for self-sufficiency in parts production for the Ahrlac. The engine is a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop, but about 98% of the non-engine parts are locally produced. These include hydraulic pumps, which Paramount says pave the way for the aircraft being largely free of export restrictions.
“All Ahrlac parts are manufactured at the new Wonderboom production facility, with very little outsourcing to other suppliers,” says Paramount. “This has been driven mainly by the need to have total control over the incorporation of the latest materials, digital design processes and digital manufacturing technologies.”
This level of control “could only be achieved by vertically integrating the full Ahrlac life cycle, and particularly manufacture, without being burdened by a lagging supply chain,” the company says. “So Wonderboom receives raw materials at one end and delivers the completed aircraft at the other end.”
This self-sufficiency has been achieved through heavy investment in manufacturing technology, including five-axis machining. The Ahrlac incorporates more than 60 3D-printed polymer parts for ducting, and Aerosud has additively manufactured titanium parts for flight-testing on the aircraft as part of the Aeroswift project with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Under Aeroswift, Aerosud and CSIR’s National Laser Center are developing a powder-based additive manufacturing machine with a 5-kW laser capable of high-speed printing of large titanium parts. The machine has a build volume of 2 X 0.6 X 0.6 m (6.6 X 2 X 2 ft.) and a scan speed of up to 50 m/sec.
Designed for an operating cost of less than $1,000/hr., the Ahrlac is offered for missions including anti-poaching, border security and military training. Post-production, in a separate facility, the basic aircraft will be modified to the armed Mwari variant with a mission system developed by Paramount.
The Mwari is smaller, lighter and less powerful than its likely competitors, the Iomax/Thrush Archangel and L3 Technologies/Air Tractor Longsword—both modified ag aircraft—but it has an interchangeable multimission pod in the lower fuselage that allows the aircraft to be switched between roles quickly. The pod can carry systems ranging from electronic and communications intelligence, synthetic-aperture radar and infrared sensors, to cargo.
“We have not simply created an armed variant of a civilian crop-duster, but produced an aircraft designed for ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and CAS [close air support] missions in every millimeter of its design,” says Ivor Ichikowitz, founder and executive chairman of Paramount Group. “It is designed for purpose—specifically for the kind of remote, hybrid ISR and CAS missions that the world’s air forces are increasingly being called upon to perform.”
The company describes the Mwari as an advanced and integrated “smart” platform, with a “proprietary mission system and data-processing technology combined with an open architecture” that allows for different system configurations for specific customer requirements. Paramount does not identify suppliers but says it intends “to develop an entire ecosystem of sensors, payloads, artificial intelligence, interface and weapon systems for the aircraft.” The PDM is shown carrying the Mokopa, a Hellfire-class laser-guided air-to-surface missile produced by South Africa’s Denel Dynamics.
According to the company, during testing the XDM first prototype has been deployed to remote and unprepared airstrips, flown on long missions at high temperatures and operated in varying coastal conditions. “The next steps in the process are weapons clearance trials and military qualification,” the company says. “We are working with the South African government on this and also engaging with a number of foreign governments in this regard, as each customer has different requirements.”