Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a pitch Tuesday for funding of a new long-range bomber to replace the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and bolster the nation’s nuclear triad of bombers, missiles and submarines.

“The one thing we cannot fall behind in is modernization. That has to start now,” Hagel said of the program to develop and field a new long-range bomber for the 2020s.

“I think the long-range strike bomber is absolutely essential to keep our deterrent edge as we go into the next 25 years,” Hagel told reporters after a town hall meeting with airmen at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, home to the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

Last summer, the Air Force opened a competition to build the new aircraft that eventually pitted Northrop Grumman, which developed the B-2, against a partnership of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Boeing developed the B-52, which has been the backbone of the fleet for more than 50 years.

A decision was expected in the spring on who will build 80–100 next generation bombers that the Air Force would like to see cost less than $550 million apiece.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, have made a new bomber one of their top three priorities, along with fielding the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the KC-46 Pegasus refueling plane.

The nuclear triad is “always about strategic deterrence,” Hagel told the airmen. “It is about staying ahead, technology-wise, of our adversaries — those who would want to do great damage to this country and our way of life and our allies.”

Modernization of weapons systems was a key factor in guaranteeing national security, but military modernization has been hampered in recent years by the cost-cutting sequester process mandated by Congress, Hagel said.

“That hurt us in many ways,” Hagel said.

“We have paid a lot of attention to that — especially the last year,” Hagel said. “We’re committing more resources in our budget that we’ll be presenting to Capitol Hill here in the next few weeks, so I want to assure you of that component of your job.”

Following his visit to Whiteman, Hagel flew to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego on his final tour of U.S. domestic military bases as Defense Secretary. President Obama has nominated former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to replace Hagel, and confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee were expected to begin in early February.