Since the middle of the 1990s, the ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana) undertook the study of a light launcher named VEGA (Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata). The Italian company BPD Difesa E Spazio (now division of FIAT Avio group) has long experience of heavy solid propulsion, with the ALFA vehicle tested in the 1970s, then the supply of the Ariane 3 and Ariane 4 solid boosters and finally the 50% participation in the Europropulsion GIE which manufactures the Ariane 5 boosters.
At a given time, the ASI planned to develop an improved version of the LTV Scout vehicle (USA) whose 9 specimens had been launched from the Italian San Marco station. The Scout 2 project, supported by the University of Rome, envisaged the addition of two booster derived from those of Ariane 4. It was definitively withdrawn in 1993.
The first proposal for the Vega launcher consisted of a three-stage solid-rocket of which the two first were derived from BPD Zefiro motor, 1.9 m in diameter weighing approximately 16 tons. The third stage was to be the IRIS (Italian Research Interim Stage) apogee kick stage, 1.3 m in diameter weighing 1.7 tons, placed under the fairing. This version, revealed in 1995, was to be able to launch satellites from 250 to 700 kg in LEO.
In 1997, FIAT Avio presented two new versions in collaboration with the Ukranian firm NPO Yuzhnoe : Vega K0 and Vega K. Vega K0 comprised four stages of which the two first were P16 Zefiros while the two upper stages were equipped with Yuzhnoe storable propellants (NTO-UDMH) engines. The 3rd stage was to use an engine derived from the RD-861 (Thrust=78 kN; ISp=314 sec) used in the Tsyklon 3 upper stage, and the 4th stage a RD-869 (Thrust=2 kN; ISp=320 sec) engine. This launcher was to place a 300 kg payload in a 700 km polar orbit. In the Vega K variant, the Zefiro first stage being replaced by a P85 motor (shortened version of the Ariane 5 solid booster, 3 m in diameter) the launch capacity reached 1.6 t in polar orbit.
During the ESA council meeting in June 1998, the selected configuration was a 3-stage solid vehicle designated P85/P16/P7 (P7 to be defined, possibly made by Aerospatiale) equipped with a liquid propulsion module to improve the orbit accuracy. The first static firing of P16 Zefiro was successfully carried out on June 22, 1998. Launched from Kourou, this version could launch a 1 ton payload on a 700 km circular orbit as from 2002.