One of the most interesting exhibits at this year’s Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) 2016 exhibition was the display put on around the AHRLAC (Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light AirCraft) prototype, produced by South Africa’s Paramount Group. The aircraft was designed with the explicit goal of ruggedness and a high level of modularity, with much of the bottom half of the airframe dedicated to an innovative, large swappable pod that’s capable of carrying anything from computers and sensors, to 20mm cannons, and even basic cargo. The idea being that an aircraft could be reconfigured from being a light trainer to being a patrol aircraft with a full sensor suite within hours by simply swapping out the pod. Examples of both a multi-mission pod and a generic cargo version carrying a standard fuel drum were being demonstrated at AAD.

The prototype – an initial XDM flight test model – was displayed with the left half representing the basic AHRLAC training and patrol variant, and the right half representing the armed Mwari armed variant. This was illustrated by examples of a multi mission sensor pod and a generic cargo pod on the AHRLAC side, with mock Mokopa missiles and GPS-guided bombs on the Mwari side’s wing hardpoints.

But while the weapons were only mockups, the aircraft was fitted with a surprising variety of the operational sensors and systems with which it was being tested. Fitted to the nose was an Airbus DS Optronics Argos II electro-optical turret, with a clear field of view as a result of the pusher-propellor configuration. The modular pod had a Thales Avni wide area surveillance camera and a GEW direction finder antenna fitted underneath, with two flat-panel interferometer array antennas for the System MiniRaven ESM system on either side. Additional MiniRaven antennas were mounted on the wings and tail booms.

The cockpits contained a Reutech ACR510 radio (the AHRLAC is its first installation); a helmet-mounted display linked to an optical tracking system with two in-cockpit tracking cameras and a full Hands On Throttle-And-Stick combination for the pilot and 21″ multi-function display for the weapons system operator in the raised rear cockpit.

This combination of systems and sensors has undergone hours of flight testing, as well as demonstrated patrols and flights both to South Africa’s border areas and Botswana, but there are no plans to begin weapons tests and further systems tests with the current XDM prototype. Instead, those will be performed on the more advanced ADM prototype that’s being completed by early next year. Unlike the XDM, which had non-retractable undercarriage and was primarily an airframe development aircraft, the ADM will be near-production standard with a lighter airframe stressed to 8g, a retractable undercarriage and provision for conformal fuel tanks to increase its range.

Paramount plans to offer the AHRLAC in a number of different variants and configurations, adding sensors, weapons, and systems in various combinations to meet a range of different roles. The Mwari version will come in two main guises: An ITAR-compliant version offered in partnership with Boeing and fitted with a Boeing mission system, weapons, and sensors; and an ‘ITAR-free’ version with an open architecture mission system and sensors and systems sourced from South African and other companies. The latter approach is what was displayed at AAD.

A brand-new factory has been established at Wonderboom Airport in Tshwane and will produce an initial two production aircraft in 2017 (each going to a different customer), after which it will increase production to one aircraft a month and potentially two a month if sufficient demand exists.

As the first clean-sheet manned military aircraft to be developed in the country since 1994, there is much riding on the AHRLAC’s success. If it achieves good sales, it creates a base for renewed aerospace investment and an opportunity for the dwindling set of highly-skilled people who cut their teeth in the major military aerospace projects of the sanctions era to pass on their skills to a new generation of South Africans.