Reuters reports that DoD’s costs for Delta and Atlas launches, purchased under the Enhanced Expendable Launch Vehicle or EELV program, will more than double. That figure is somewhat misleading. As the article notes, the number of planned launches is increasing, from 91 to 151 (an increase of 66%).
Nevertheless, the cost per launch is increasing, even if the increase is not as dramatic as the headline implies. This is problematic, given the flat or shrinking military budgets expected in future years.
The Clinton-era policy of forced defense consolidation, which resulted in Delta and Atlas being marketed by a single organization, United Launch Alliance, has backfired. To the surprise of many in Washington DC, and no one outside the Beltway, creating a monopoly did not reduce costs.
Faced with this problem, the US Air Force (which manages military space programs) has created Orbital/Suborbital Program 3 (OSP-3) to certify additional launchers, such as Lockheed’s Athena, Orbital’s Antares and Minotaur, and SpaceX’s Falcon, for military launches. Of these rockets, only Falcon has a growth path that would allow it to compete with Atlas and Delta for the largest military payloads. SpaceX recently qualified for two launches under OSP-3, but the military’s approach to new launchers remains highly conservative, due to understandable concerns about the unproven reliability of new rockets as political pressure to protect existing contractors. As a result, Delta and Atlas are expected to carry the bulk of DoD launches for years to come.