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Innovative African-built military aircraft turning heads

Sept. 29, 2014, Pretoria, S.A. - It was a proud moment for defence entrepreneur Ivor Ichikowitz as he watched his first two-seater military airplane landing at an air force base near Pretoria after its inaugural public flight this month.


September 29, 2014
By The Globe and Mail

The tiny, odd-looking turboprop is unimpressive at first glance. It’s
almost mosquito-like, just 10 metres long and four metres high, with a
huge bubble canopy to help its pilots survey the horizon. But it’s
touted as a revolutionary product: the first fixed-wing military
aircraft to be fully designed and built in Africa, and potentially the
cornerstone of an emerging African defence industry.

The innovative airplane, powered by engines from Pratt & Whitney
Canada, is intended to fill a new niche in the global military sector as
an inexpensive light attack airplane for anti-terrorism operations,
border patrols, counterpiracy, pipeline security, anti-poaching and
counterinsurgency – roles that are increasingly crucial in a turbulent
world of radical militias, chronic wars and criminal syndicates.

 

The
plane, known as AHRLAC (Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light
Aircraft), is still in the flight-testing phase, but is expected to go
into production in late 2015 or early 2016. That’s almost two years
later than the target date when the design was unveiled in 2011. But
there is already “really remarkable” interest from potential buyers
worldwide, Mr. Ichikowitz said.

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“It’s an African aircraft, African
design and technology, but it’s produced for the world. The major
interest in AHRLAC is from the rest of the world. A lot of people had
seen images of it, but the real thing has certainly got a lot of people
flabbergasted.”

 

Mr. Ichikowitz is a controversial figure in South
Africa, often denounced for his close connections to politicians across
the continent and his energetic lobbying for greater military spending.
He says he makes no apology for his financial support of South Africa’s
ruling party, nor for his willingness to provide jet planes for the
leaders of South Africa and Malawi – not always on a commercial basis.

 

Aside
from the furor over his tactics, there is little doubt that Mr.
Ichikowitz has been extraordinarily successful as an industrialist. When
he created Paramount Group in 1994, just
after the collapse of apartheid, his company was primarily just an
exporter of surplus South African equipment, at a time when the
postapartheid government was drastically cutting back its military
budget.

 

Since then, Mr. Ichikowitz has seen the company grow into
the largest privately owned defence and aerospace producer in Africa,
with about 2,500 employees worldwide and sales growth of about 25 per
cent annually. The company does not divulge its finances, but its
revenue is reportedly approaching $1-billion (U.S.) this year.

 

One
sign of his prosperity could be spotted at the Africa Aerospace and
Defence trade show at an air base near Pretoria this month. After
showcasing his AHRLAC aircraft in a prominent spot on the base, Mr.
Ichikowitz strolled across the tarmac to visit the nearby Bombardier
pavilion. The purpose of his visit: to tour the luxurious Challenger 300
business jet. He admitted he was there as a potential customer.

 

Mr.
Ichikowitz, 47, has faced criticism for his close ties to South
Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress. As early as 2008,
he sometimes provided free use of his business jets for leading ANC
officials, including President Jacob Zuma and former president Nelson
Mandela. Last week, the government confirmed it had leased a jet from
Mr. Ichikowitz at commercial rates to fly Mr. Zuma to New York for the
annual United Nations assembly.

 

Mr. Ichikowitz shrugs off the
criticism. “I’ve been a member of the ANC all my life,” he says. “I’ve
been an absolutely unashamed supporter of the movement that brought
liberation to this country. We make no apologies for the fact we’ve
supported the ANC in many different ways, and one of those ways is
making our aircraft available to its leadership when we’ve been asked to
do so.”

His company believes in “transparent, open involvement
with political parties,” he said, adding: “Paramount does very little
business with the SA government.”

 

Mr. Ichikowitz became a
lightning rod for opposition politicians in Malawi after striking a deal
to sell a reported $145-million in patrol boats and other military
equipment to the government of former president Joyce Banda. As part of
the deal, Paramount agreed to buy Ms. Banda’s presidential jet (at what
Mr. Ichikowitz describes as an excessive price) to offset the
government’s debt – but it allowed Ms. Banda to continue using it. The
deals sparked a furor in the Malawian election campaign this year,
contributing to Ms. Banda’s defeat. The new government promised to
cancel the contract, but in the end it was “restructured” with
unspecified new terms.

 

Patrick Bond, a researcher and activist at
the University of KwaZulu-Natal who has documented Mr. Ichikowitz’s
political connections, has described him as a “dangerous asset” for
Pretoria and the “most aggressive arms-dealing entrepreneur” in Africa.

 

At
an Africa-U.S. political summit in Washington last month, Mr.
Ichikowitz was lobbying again. He argued that the United States should
encourage the development of an African defence industry to help defeat
terrorists and extremists. He called on U.S.-backed institutions such as
the International Monetary Fund to stop vetoing military spending by
African governments.

This provoked more controversy. One U.S. website, The Daily Beast, suggested that Paramount’s slogan should be: “Give war a chance.”

 

Mr.
Ichikowitz is convinced, however, that the Obama administration is
shifting toward greater support for African defence spending. “There’s
hardly been an international terrorist incident recently that hasn’t had
some form of African link, so suddenly security in Africa has become a
priority,” he said.

 

“Today we have more democracies in Africa than
ever before, and we have responsible governments that need to be
supported to have their own security and defence capability. The West
should assist African countries to create their own security
infrastructure, so they can deal with their own internal threats
themselves.”