NEWTOWN, Conn. --- Although the Atlas V and Delta IV have been carrying U.S. government payloads into orbit for over a decade under the EELV program, operations of those two launch vehicles are expected to wind down as they are threatened by new competition in the market and reliance on Russian-built engines. In order to remain competitive, ULA intends to replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV with a single launch vehicle known as Vulcan.
In May 2015, SpaceX's Falcon 9 was certified to launch U.S. military payloads, bringing new competition to the market. The Air Force has since awarded SpaceX multiple contracts to carry national security payloads into orbit. Through manufacturing and operational efficiencies, SpaceX is able to charge the Air Force significantly lower prices to carry payloads to orbit than ULA when using the Atlas V or Delta IV.
Another controversy facing the EELV program is the use of the Russian-built RD-180 rocket motor on Atlas V launch vehicles. Following the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, pressure from Congress increased to replace the RD-180 on the Atlas V.
Instead, ULA proposed designing an entirely new launch vehicle, dubbed the Vulcan. ULA expects the Vulcan to be much cheaper to produce, thereby increasing competitiveness against the Falcon 9 while also ending reliance on Russian-built rocket motors. Congress has expressed some skepticism that developing an entirely new launch vehicle is more cost- effective than designing a new engine for the Atlas V.
However, the high cost of the EELV program means that ULA needs a new launch vehicle to remain competitive. Therefore, the business case for developing the Vulcan is strong enough that Forecast International believes the Air Force and ULA will convince Congress to fund the program. ULA has submitted the Vulcan to the Air Force under the Launch Service Agreement (LSA) program, intended to fund the design of new launch vehicles to improve competition and reduce costs for launch services.
At the same time, Congress has dropped its opposition to using up to 18 more RD-180 engines, enabling the Atlas V to continue operations until the early 2020s. Because Vulcan is not expected to enter full service until the mid-2020s, additional engines may be required.
Production levels will slowly decline as the launch vehicles lose some business to the Falcon 9 and eventually are replaced by the Vulcan. The Delta IV Heavy will remain in production the longest, owing to its unique ability to carry extremely heavy payloads into orbit. Production of the Delta IV Heavy will likely continue until around 2026, when it, too, will be replaced by larger versions of the Vulcan and the Falcon Heavy.