PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The first military aircraft designed and built by African companies was unveiled Tuesday by a South African arms company which said it had already received orders for the lightweight plane.
Ivor Ichikowitz, head of Johannesburg-based arms maker Paramount Group, called the plane a breakthrough, but experts said its simple design was similar to planes produced by other countries, and said it will have tough competition.
Ichikowitz said the AHRLAC plane can be used for peacekeeping missions and reconnaissance and is armed to defend itself.
He said he's received an order from a country he would not name for 50 of the planes, each costing about $10 million.
Paramount Group is one of Africa's largest military hardware producers and has markets in West Africa and the Middle East.
Ichikowitz, known for his flamboyance, revealed a life-size model of the aircraft at a South African arms factory. Beside the model of the plane stood two female models wearing flight suits and holding pilot helmets. The weapons were not mounted on the model.
Ichikowitz said everything on the plane is South African-made except for the engine. Local aircraft engineering company Aerosud partnered Paramount Group in the development of AHRLAC. The engine is made by U.S.-based jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney.
Production of the two-pilot aircraft will begin in late 2012.
He said their main target is the international market.
"Defense companies in this country rely on the (South African Air Force) and are battling," he said. "Even though the aircraft is made in Africa, it is not solely for the African market."
Defense analyst Siemon Wezeman of the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the AHRLAC is "not unique" because similar light aircraft have been in use for a long time and can easily be replicated. The U.S, France, Italy and Switzerland used such aircraft during World War II, he said.
He also said Ichikowitz's price is high and the company will face a lot of competition from other manufacturers who have been in the industry longer and offer lower prices. A similar aircraft in the U.S. costs at least $2.5 million, Wezeman said.
Anton Kruger, a military analyst with South Africa's independent Institute for Security Studies, said the design resembles an American reconnaissance aircraft, the Firebird.
"The only difference is that the Firebird is larger and can both be manned and remote-controlled, otherwise the design is the same," he said.
He said the price is "absolutely reasonable" and the best an African country can offer because of the amount of money it cost to build the aircraft. The project is said to have cost over $200 million.