SAN ANTONIO — The new intelligence and surveillance systems fielded in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. military have played a key role in counterterrorism operations, but the manpower required to exploit

all the data they collect is increasingly strained, a senior military official said Oct. 19.

It will be up to

 industry to further develop the tools needed to automate much of the analysis work that is now done by people, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Bradley Heithold said at the Geoint 2009 Symposium here. Heithold is commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, responsible for organizing, training and equipping 17,000 Air Force intelligence analysts.

Since the

invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military has had to conduct warfare differently than in previous large-scale

campaigns. Prior enemies — such as the Iraqi army in 1991 —

 have moved in mass and were easy to distinguish from civilian populations.

“The job of the intelligence community was relatively easy, because it was to find and fix the fielded forces, which moved in mass in armored tanks,” Heithold said. “We could basically pinpoint them with national assets and airbreathers. The challenge was to kill the fielded forces.

“Today’s fight is a manhunting drill — that’s what it’s about. We’ve got to find a handful of high-value targets nested lots of times within civilian populations.”

Heithold cited the example of the 2006 killing of Iraqi al-Qaida

leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

. In that case, the Air Force developed a pattern of life for al-Zarqawi by collecting more than 600 hours of overhead video of him. It then took only six minutes for an F-16 to fly over the building he was in and drop the two precision bombs that killed him.

To adapt to the changing fight, the military for the last five years has relied heavily on unmanned aerial drones for gathering ISR data, as well as for conducting air strikes. The Air Force now operates 33 squadrons,

 or orbits, of its most prevalent drone, the MQ-1 Predator built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego. Each orbit consists of several aircraft that can collectively provide 24-hour aerial coverage. Current plans call for 50 orbits to be fielded by the end of 2011, and there is talk of increasing that number to 65 or even 90 orbits, Heithold said.

The demand for ISR data in

Southwest Asia is so great that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in November 2008 approved a rapid acquisition plan called Project Liberty to field 37 manned Hawker Beechcraft MC-12 aircraft for collecting full-motion video and signals intelligence. Some of these craft have already entered service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What we’ve been told from the field is, we don’t want all unmanned craft,” Heithold said. “There’s something about manned platforms. There’s something about the relationship that develops between the people in the airplane and the people on the ground, because you’re not going to leave the people on the ground until you’re out of fuel or out of bullets.”

In addition to fielding new ISR aircraft, many of the currently deployed craft, including the Northrop Grumman-built RQ-4 Global Hawk, will be outfitted with new sensors capable of collecting far greater amounts of data. The Air Force is already stressed to exploit the data coming down from current systems, Heithold said.

“We aren’t going to be able to throw more manpower at it; that can’t be the solution,” he said. “We’re capped at 332,000 airmen in the Air Force, and they’re all real busy today. So if you are going to grow this capability, you’re going to have to use technology and do that with machine-to-machine interfaces. We’ve got to take the human out of some of this.”

The ISR capabilities provided by aircraft and satellites have enabled the military to hone and perfect counterterrorism operations over the last eight years, said U.S. Navy Capt. H. W. Howard, director of counterterrorism policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. Howard spent 10 years in Joint Special Operations Command and led assault forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The ‘finish’ piece is arguably one of the easiest parts of our job now,” Howard said. “It’s the exploitation and analysis that has become our main effort. The diversity and skills of our task forces, that’s where the magic is.”