Few people,” says Ivor Ichikowitz, executive chairman of South Africa's Paramount Group, “understand what we're doing.” In September, the company unveiled the full-scale mockup of a unique aircraft, the Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft (Ahrlac), and announced it was well along with development and fabrication of a prototype. However, little if any of the media coverage dealt with what makes Ahrlac unusual and better-founded than most startup aviation projects.

Paramount, says Ichikowitz, is not in the business of selling technology. “We're in the business of providing customers with turnkey services.” The company was founded in the aftermath of South Africa's turn away from apartheid, initially marketing surplus equipment on the world market.

For example, one Paramount line of business involves ex-South African Air Force Dassault Mirage F1AZs. Through Aerosud (its partner in Ahrlac, in which Paramount has a 19% stake), Paramount refurbishes and updates the French fighters and has supplied them to the Congo Republic (Brazzaville) and Gabon, together with a turnkey training, maintenance and spares package. Paramount has “the world's largest supersonic private air force,” CEO John Craig says.

Much of the company's business is in supporting peacekeeping operations (PKO) manned by forces working under contract to the United Nations and African Union (AU). Mostly from African states, these forces often lack the equipment and logistics to deploy outside their home countries. Paramount arranges financing for the new equipment, and gets paid back from U.N. and AU payments to the participating country.

“We went in [to these operations] using other people's land platforms,” Ichikowitz says, “but realized that if you don't own the platform, you're not in control.” Also, no vehicle on the market, in Paramount's view, was tailored to the needs of PKOs. With South Africa's extensive land-vehicle experience behind it, Paramount invested “a lot of money” in its vehicle designs, with a few principles given priority—principles carried forward to Ahrlac.

The high-value engineering resides in South Africa, but the vehicles are designed for global manufacture. The mine/blast-resistant Marauder and the Matador personnel carrier are in production in Baku, Azerbaijan (a follow-on order was announced in May), and the company is collaborating with the United Arab Emirates to set up a plant there for the Middle East. The bigger 6 X 6 Mbombe is likely to be marketed the same way.

Another principle is to design vehicles that are affordable but can be customized to meet higher-end requirements. Under an agreement with India's Ashok Leyland, Paramount is chasing the Indian market—with Paramount-designed vehicles tailored to local defense and security requirements—and offering a low-cost Marauder option with Ashok Leyland running gear. You can also, Craig says, get the up-market Marauder with a MAN diesel and ZF transmission, or a Cummins/Allison version for commonality with U.S. vehicles.

Ichikowitz points to another feature of Paramount's vehicles. “They all have the largest glass real estate of any vehicle in their class.” This is no accident. “We know what goes right in PKOs and what goes wrong, and what goes wrong is often a decision made from inside a vehicle, or by a commander looking at a remote camera.” Giving the commander a better view was one of the starting points for Ahrlac.

When Paramount started to look at what was needed to provide air support to PKOs, says Ichikowitz, the company realized there was nothing suitable on the market. What was needed was something that would operate alongside ground forces and use similar systems and weapons, while providing persistent surveillance.

The Paramount/Aerosud team includes veterans of South Africa's Rooivalk attack helicopter program. “At first, we sat down and said we wanted to make a Rooivalk-lite, but it took us 25 min. to realize that was a stupid idea.” Helicopters don't have the range and endurance needed, and are not cost-effective for the large areas that PKOs often cover, says Ichikowitz.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) cost too much for PKOs, once support systems are factored in, and only the largest types carry the payload that Paramount considers necessary. Moreover, you need “a pilot in the loop, to assess the situation in three dimensions and react accordingly.”

However, the configuration that emerged from the design process resembles the offspring of a dalliance between a scout/attack helicopter and a large UAV. The Ahrlac has a high wing—swept slightly forward for center-of-gravity considerations—and twin tailbooms. A central nacelle has stepped seating for the crew in front, helicopter-style, and the engine in the back.

Compared with a trainer-based design like the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 or Embraer Super Tucano, it gives the crew a better, helicopter-like view, uninterrupted by the engine or the wing. Ahrlac can pack a fuselage-mounted 20-mm cannon. Space for the gun is provided on the lower left side of the fuselage with ammunition storage and feeds behind the cockpit. A thermal-imaging and laser-designation turret is mounted under the rear seat. The rough-field levered-suspension main landing gear is mounted on sponsons for a wide track and stability, retracting inward into blisters.

Ichikowitz says that people don't appreciate the size of Ahrlac, which may be because the canopy is huge—the biggest one-piece blown canopy in the world, covering a cockpit large enough to accommodate Martin-Baker Mk16 ejection seats. (The canopy is produced in-house, and Ichikowitz says “the project nearly came to an unpleasant end” before the development challenge was solved.)

The aircraft is in fact in the same size class as the Super Tucano and AT-6. With a maximum takeoff weight of 8,400 lb., a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-66 engine flat-rated to 950 shp (driving a five-blade propeller) and 270 kt. maximum speed, the aircraft is not much smaller than its trainer-based competition, although it uses a less powerful engine. Its bigger wing, spanning 40 ft., should give it better short-takeoff performance and endurance. It carries 1,760 lb. of payload with full fuel and two fully equipped crew members, has a range of 1,100 nm, and 7-hr. endurance.

Vulnerability to ground fire and manportable air-defense systems (Manpads) is a problem with light attack aircraft, but a more manageable challenge than a decade ago. Paramount is not talking about any specific features in this area, but “even a little fabric designed to shrug off a 7.62 round is likely to make a huge difference in survivability at low altitude,” comments a USAF officer familiar with light attack aircraft. The characteristic “mouse ear” PT6 exhausts appear to be shrouded in the fairings behind the engine inlets, probably to reduce their infrared signature. Unlike a front-engine PT6-powered aircraft, the exhaust flow does not heat the structure and the plume is quickly dissipated by the propeller.

Paramount's documentation shows the Ahrlac being armed with Denel Dynamics' Mokopa laser-guided missile, as well as bombs and 70-mm rockets, on four underwing hardpoints. For overwater missions, the aircraft carries small search radar in addition to the electro-optical turret.

Paramount waited until the Ahrlac was at a relatively advanced stage before revealing it. The aircraft is planned to fly at the end of the second quarter of 2012, and the company is hoping for a public debut at the Africa Aerospace & Defense show in September, with the first production aircraft due to roll out in mid-2013.

This apparently ambitious schedule relies on a good amount of previous work. Wind-tunnel testing is complete, and the Paramount/Aerosud team accomplished 100 hr. of flight testing on an instrumented one-quarter-scale flying mock-up. Ichikowitz says that Aerosud is building the first aircraft using the same computer-aided-design files and machine tools that will be used in production. (Aerosud is a sole-source provider of structural parts to Boeing, Airbus and other manufacturers.)

Paramount has customers lined up, though not enough to launch the program, Ichikowitz says. More orders are expected in coming months.

The aircraft is aimed at military and paramilitary markets, but is being designed to commercial standards, and Paramount aims to seek civil certification, allowing the aircraft to be used for missions such as pipeline security or surveying. On the military side, Paramount sees roles ranging from basic training to maritime security. The engine location even makes a turbofan-powered development a possibility.

Those developments are in the future. For now, the team is focusing on the basic program. Ichikowitz sums up the development: “It's 100% demand-driven, not technology-driven. Few organizations have the luxury of a clean-sheet design.”