As piracy explodes off Somalia’s lawless coast, the questions become ever more stark: How can ragtag bands of Somali pirates stand up to international warships? And why not just shoot the bandits when they try to clamber aboard?

First, the pirates are not as ragtag as one might expect. And second, it’s a big ocean.

In Somalia, pirates are well-funded, well-organized and have easy access to heavy weapons in a country that has been in tatters for nearly two decades. Pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger ships that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and communications equipment and have an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.

Any blip on an unwary ship’s radar screens, alerting the crew to nearby vessels, is likely to be mistaken for fishing trawlers or any number of smaller, non-threatening ships that take to the seas every day. Here is more…