The U.S. Air Force is still flying its E-8 JSTARS radar aircraft over Afghanistan and Iraq. JSTARS has a radar for tracking ground activity and was designed to better integrate air and ground operations by quickly locating targets for our aircraft and coordinating those attacks with friendly ground operations. During the 1991 and 2003 fighting in Kuwait and Iraq, JSTARS was very useful for tracking large numbers of military vehicles over a wide area. But in the current Iraq operations, nearly all the vehicles showing up on JSTARS screens are civilian. However, at night, and in the thinly populated desert areas of western Iraq, JSTARS has proved very useful.
The JSTARS radar has two modes; wide area (showing a 25 by 20 kilometer area) and detailed (4,000 by 5,000 meters). The radar can see out to several hundred kilometers and each screen full of information could be saved and brought back later to compare to another view. In this manner, operators could track movement of ground units. Operators could also use the detail mode to pick out specifics details of ground units (fortifications, buildings, vehicle deployments, etc.). JSTARS is real good at picking up trucks moving along highways on flat terrain. And JSTARS can stay up there for over 12 hours at a time, and two or more JSTARS can operate in shifts to provide 24/7 coverage.
So for operations out in Iraqs wild west, a JSTARS overhead can tell American troops below where there are vehicles moving where vehicles shouldnt be. At 3 AM, those trucks out in the desert are either smugglers, or terrorists, and the troops can quickly round them up. JSTARS is expensive to operate (over $10,000 an hour), and there are only eight available. But there have been operations where a JSTARS was available and it made a difference.