Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Friday for overhauling a nuclear deterrent system plagued by cheating scandals and a maintenance backlog that forced airmen to Federal Express a single wrench between missile silos to tighten screws on warheads.

"It is true," Hagel said of the special wrench fiasco involving Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Malmstrom Air Base in Montana and F.E. Warren Air Base in Nevada where Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are located.

"I think it's an indication of the depth and width of what has happened over the last few years" to undermine confidence in the deterrent, Hagel said. Air Force missileers maintained the reliability of the warheads on the missiles by sharing the single wrench, Hagel said.

"They did it by Federal Express with one wrench," Hagel said. By way of assurance, Hagel said "we now have a wrench at each location."

Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference to announce a series of costly reforms to the nuclear weapons infrastructure and personnel systems. After doing so, he traveled Friday to Minot to explain in detail the changes to airmen later in the afternoon.

"We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here," Hagel said.

The defense secretary also released two Pentagon reviews showing "systemic problems across the nuclear enterprise" that have led to low morale and widespread cheating on tests among the airmen in charge of launching missiles and sailors who maintain nuclear reactors and sea-launched missiles aboard submarines.

Hagel said that the Defense Department currently spends about $15-$16 billion annually to keep nuclear missiles secure and effective, and the proposed changes would add "billions" to that amount over the next five years.

Defense officials told the Associated Press that the additional money would be in the range of $1-10 billion. The Washington Post said the fix would cost about $7.5 billion.

Hagel said he was also authorizing the Air Force to put a four-star general in charge of the Global Strike Command, which had previously been a three-star billet. The Air Force commander would now "no longer be outranked by his counterparts" in the other services, Hagel said.

Hagel's recommendations for reforming the management of the nuclear arsenal were only the latest in the periodic attempts by the Defense Department – namely the Air Force -- to improve the methods for keeping the world's most powerful weapons "safe, secure and effective."

In 2008, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered similar reforms after firing Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne over the accidental transfer by the Air Force of nuclear triggers to Taiwan and the mistaken shipment of six nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana.

In 2007, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger led a task force that found a "distressing" lack of focus throughout the Defense Department and persistent problems with the nuclear stockpile.

The Schlesinger report found "widespread fragmentation, dispersal of responsibility, and weakening of authorities in the Office of the Secretary of Defense's (OSD) management of the nuclear mission and the nuclear weapons mission area."

Hagel and Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said they were aware of the previous critical reports but insisted that the results would be different with the current proposals.

"There was a lack of follow-up" in previous efforts, Hagel said.

"We have had many, many internal reviews," Work said, while adding that the current overhaul "is much, much different. We're going to stop this. We need our best people in this enterprise."

Work noted that the Navy had been authorized to hire 2,500 shipyard workers to improve maintenance of nuclear-powered ships and the aging Ohio-class nuclear submarines that carry SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.)

"As the subs get older, our maintenance capabilities trend longer," said Adm. Michelle Howard, the vice chief of Naval Operations. "We're doing that hiring right now," she said.

Following the news conference, Hagel sent a message to all personnel involved in the nuclear enterprise saying that he was enacting reforms "following revelations about troubling lapses of integrity in our nation's nuclear forces."

He referred to the cheating scandals among missile launch officers at Air Force missile bases and at the Naval Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C.

In January, dozens of missile launch officers were caught cheating on tests at Malmstrom Air Force Base and were stripped of their certifications in what the Air Force termed the worst ever breach of integrity involving the nuclear force.

One of the independent reviews of the system ordered up by Hagel was done by retired Gen. Larry Welch, the former Air Force chief of staff, and retired Adm. John Harvey, the former commander of U.S. Fleet Forces.

Their report found that "the most serious problems encountered were a series of significant disconnects, including those between what the DOD and service leadership expected and what the leadership did to empower the forces to meet those expectations."

The Welch-Harvey report also noted the divide between "what leadership says and presumably believes and what the sailors, airmen and Marines who must execute the mission actually experience."

Welch, who attended the Pentagon news conference, said that the reforms "will not be an easy thing to accomplish. We need constant reminders from senior leadership that this is job one."

The reforms proposed by Hagel were largely the result of the exposure of the systemic problems in the system first disclosed in a series of detailed reports by Associated Press reporter Robert Burns.

The initial reaction of the Air Force was to question Burns' credibility. Lt. Gen. Les Kodlick, then the Air Force' chief of public affairs, wrote an editorial charging that Burns "grossly exaggerated and distorted challenges affecting the Air Force's nuclear force."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com