AMMAN, Jordan — A major South African defense company brought its 1-ton giant "superhero robot" to a special operations exhibition in Jordan last week, with such attention-grabbing gusto word had spread to Amman taxi drivers who wondered, as they shuttled conference goers back and forth, what it was and what it meant.
The robot, which dons a rhino horn on its head, made of parts from Paramount Group's Mbombe armored vehicle, was originally built to raise awareness against rhinoceros poaching in South Africa.
But at SOFEX, "Parabot," as it's called, raised company awareness to an international audience that Paramount is no longer a South African defense company, but a global player with South African roots.
And Ivor Ichikowitz, Paramount's founder, told Defense News in an interview, the company is turning its attention toward the US defense market for new opportunities to collaborate.
Ichikowitz started Paramount in 1994 shortly after South African apartheid officially ended. A young activist in the African National Congress, he had "no military background whatsoever," he said.
Paramount Group's founder Ivor Ichikowitz
Photo Credit: Paramount Group
Yet, the young man who had been a drama student at a university in Johannesburg, identified, along with the new, transitioning ANC leadership, "one thing that South Africa had that could play a huge role in changing the face of the African continent was, in fact, the defense industry," Ichikowitz said.
Paramount was "born out of the euphoria" emergent in the country's democratic era, Ichikowitz said, with an intent to go out and help African governments create institutions of defense and security. Its focus was primarily on the vehicle market.
Fast-forward 22 years and Paramount now has global reach and influence, developing systems in the land, air and sea realms, and has employed more than 3,500 people.
Building Global Partnerships
Paramount has established partnerships with many countries and companies worldwide, Ichikowitz said.
For instance, it is a risk-sharing partner on the A400M aircraft with Airbus, has a division that upgrades and modernizes Mirage supersonic aircraft around the world, and makes composite rotor blades for Russian helicopters, to name a few.
Paramount is also the largest shipbuilder on the African continent, according to Ichikowitz.
The company is a world leader in the development of specialized production methodologies with new materials. It has pioneered titanium additive manufacturing — essentially 3-D printing technology for titanium.
But independent vehicle development set Paramount's foundation, Ichikowitz said, with 3,000 vehicles of various types fielded around the world.
Paramount announced at SOFEX that the Jordanian armed forces would be the first customer for its newest 6x6 armored vehicle — Mbombe 6. But Jordan will be as much of a co-collaborator and producer as it will be a customer.
Mbombe is a flat-floor, mine-protected vehicle that was, in part, refined through collaboration with Jordan, although it has been in development for seven years.
All of the company's systems, developed over the years, were produced for asymmetrical warfare because that is all Africa has ever known, Ichikowitz said. "Today we bring that experience into the Middle East that is experiencing asymmetrical issues for the first time."
Paramount Group's Mbombe 6X6 armored vehicle. Jordan is its first customer.
Photo Credit: Paramount Group
By working closely with Jordanian armed forces "we have been able to incorporate a lot of lessons learned into the Mbombe 6," Ichikowitz said. Jordan will ultimately buy and help to build 50 Mbombe 6s in a facility in the country. The plan is to deliver the first 25 this summer.
Paramount regularly pushes for production facilities in the countries in which it does business.
"Most of the equipment we produce has a 25- to 30-year life, so when we get involved with the government, it's a marriage," Ichikowitz said. "And the best way to make that real is by establishing production in the customer's country."
For example, Paramount established in Kazakhstan the largest armored vehicle factory in that region "and probably one of the biggest armored factories in the world," he said.
Entering the aerospace sector at the turn of the millennium, Paramount soon after started "without doubt one of the most exciting light attack aircraft programs in the world and that is the [Advanced High Performance Light Aircraft] AHRLAC program, which has now evolved into the Mwari program," Ichikowitz said.
Paramount announced Mwari's launch at SOFEX. The aircraft is a high-wing, two-seat design with advanced intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and weapons systems.
The aircraft integrates capability from attack helicopters and ISR aircraft.
Coming to America
Mwari is also a centerpiece of a partnership between Paramount and Boeing established in 2014. Boeing will design an advanced mission system for a variant of Mwari.
Paramount and Boeing's relationship at the show was obvious, both had special "chalets" right next to each other and set apart from the expo hall floors.
And beyond Boeing, Ichikowitz has plans to build further relationships in the US defense market.
"Paramount is at the moment in discussions with a number of major players in the US environment with a view to partnering on the introduction of our land forces range," Ichikowitz said, "and to work more closely into the system integration of aerospace solutions both onto US platforms as well as US platforms onto foreign systems.
"So the US is a very big focus for us at the moment," he said.
Ichikowitz said it's too early to announce any details but said, "There are negotiations and discussions underway to work with US companies both to compete projects in the US as well as to support US activities elsewhere in the world."
Paramount's founder believes the company has much to offer the US defense industry, not just in supplying technology, but in philosophy, as the US attempts to rethink how it acquires defense capabilities.
"It's important to note that not a single one of Paramount's technologies has ever been funded with government funds," he said.
In Mbombe's case, "that would have been a DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] project, it would have been a billion-dollar competition sent up to 400 companies and probably awarded to four companies in the US, none of them would have been able to do it, by the way, and a billion dollars would have been spent in the process," Ichikowitz said.
Instead, Mbombe was 100 percent funded internally from the design, to the concept, through development, to testing and certification, according to Ichikowitz.
"It's a big message to give the US industry because it goes to prove that you can do this stuff cost-effectively. I am not going to suggest to you that any of this was cheap … or this was easy, but it can be done," he said.
Paramount has only ever worked to develop capabilities for countries with budget restrictions, Ichikowitz noted. "We've always had to come up with technologies that give our customers the most capabilities for the least amount of money," he added.
Ichikowitz also lamented that innovation in the US defense industry doesn't get done unless the government has a requirement for it.
"There are so many glaring obvious opportunities and huge capability in the US industry that isn't resulting in product because the government hasn't gotten its head around to funding the development," he said.
"Now who knew that you needed flat-floor mine protection until we built it but it's revolutionized an industry."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.