One of the more confusing positions for Democrats in the end-of-the-year “fiscal slope” negotiations concerns where they stand on the defense trigger. Obviously, with Republicans desperate to close these cuts, at least for the first year, Democrats have an opportunity to leverage that into a better deal. However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has undermined that by asserting that great damage would be done to national security if so much as one dime under the Administration’s budget gets cut.

Now, Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin is working on an alternative solution, where the defense budget gets lowered in this fiscal year, to cushion the blow for the trigger cuts down the road.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the powerful committee, said “defense has to contribute” to a compromise to head off the across-the-board, $55-billion-a-year cuts required by the budget compromise that Congress reached last year. The provision, known as sequestration, will be triggered on Jan. 3 if Congress doesn’t come up with a 10-year, $1.2 trillion deficit reduction plan or a compromise to change the law by the end of this year.

Levin suggested that some cuts could come from the costs of maintaining and modernizing the nuclear stockpile and funding for family housing for troops stationed in South Korea.

Levin, participating in a National Press Club session, said a signal should be sent on a compromise before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, because major defense contractors have already sent “warning notices” to employees of possible cuts.

“That kind of instability and uncertainty is what is going to drive us, hopefully . . . to at least take some steps down the path of avoiding that train wreck,” Levin said.

This represents the first steps from a hawkish Democrat to give in a little bit, to force defense cuts to be part of the solution. It’s a paltry number – $10 billion a year is well within the capabilities of a base budget that stands at $525 billion for the next fiscal year – but it represents bargaining rather than a flat denial of cuts.

As the venerable Winslow Wheeler points out, you’re seeing the shift at the think tank level as well. The Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies just put out reports that seek to manage the cuts to defense expected in 2013, rather than simply fearmongering about them. Wheeler scoffs that the cuts aren’t meaningful, but still believes that simply acknowledging there will be cuts sets us on a different path:

But their publication constitutes inadvertent signals that we have moved beyond adamantly refusing to contemplate further defense budget cuts into the realm of pretending the cuts and reforms to be undertaken will be more meaningful than they actually are. In Washington, that’s progress: a step forward but a much smaller one than the authors would have you think.

CNAS’ report, according to Wheeler, has a top-level number of $500 billion in cuts over ten years but really calls for about $150 billion when you connect it to the proper fiscal year. CSIS also suffers from changing the baseline. And Wheeler goes inside the numbers and shows that both think tanks are giving mostly the illusion of cutbacks. But that topline number still shows a shift.

Ultimately, I think the way the Pentagon will get around this is by asking for more money from Afghanistan than they actually need and shifting that cash into the base budget. This is why antiwar activities are so important even with the country on a road to drawdown in Afghanistan. The overseas contingency operations budgets in the past couple years have become slush funds, and that needs to stop.

…I think I just found the first $20 billion in savings, by not building planes that constantly crash and don’t do the job intended. 30 years and they can’t made a decent V-22 Osprey.