She is 500 feet long, loaded with missiles capable of wiping out an enemy five times faster than the speed of sound, and her task is to detect, deter, dominate or destroy.

Against the backdrop of the rusted steel cranes in one of Glasgow's oldest shipyards yesterday, HMS Dragon, the fourth of the Royal Navy's new Type 45 anti-air warfare destroyers, was launched.

Thousands of spectators gathered as the vessel slipped into the icy water of the Clyde from BVT's shipyard at Govan, with an 18m Welsh dragon on its bow.

Dragon will provide air defence cover, be able to carry up to 60 Royal Marine Commandos, and operate a Chinook sized helicopter from its flight deck.

The Lady Sponsor, Mrs Susie Boissier, wife of Vice Admiral Paul Boissier, Deputy Commander-In-Chief Fleet and Chief of Staff, named and launched the ship to rapturous applause from the crowds.

The ceremony included an aerial display from a Royal Navy helicopter and entertainment from sea cadets from across the UK.

Speaking at the launch, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Commander-in-Chief Fleet, said a piece of history had been made as the warship entered the water.

"Dragon is another important landmark in delivering future Royal Navy capability," he said. "We are in the middle of the largest procurement programme for the Royal Navy in many years and today's event underlines the importance of the Royal Navy in the 21st century.

"The Type 45 destroyers will be powerful and versatile ships, capable of undertaking a wide range of military tasks. They are based on first-class innovation and engineering, which will set new standards in air defence, and they will ensure that the Royal Navy remains at the forefront of the world's navies."

As onlookers celebrated the dragon taking to the water, the workers - especially the apprentices who have learned their trade building HMS Dragon - stood back in awe of one of the world's most sophisticated warships.

Joe Dunn, 28, from Johnstone, an apprentice pipe fitter at Govan, said he was honoured to be at his first launch.

"I feel a great sense of pride and excitement," he said. "It's amazing to see something like this and know and understand how much hard work goes into it. It's a great day."

Cheryl Stuart, 20, from Drumchapel, a technical apprentice, said: "It's a great feeling being able to watch this.

"You realise how much it means to everyone involved."

The Type 45s will replace the Navy's ageing fleet of Type 42 destroyers.

Each destroyer will be able to engage a large number of targets simultaneously, and defend aircraft carriers or groups of ships against future threats from the air.

The order by the Ministry of Defence for six new vessels to be built and launched in Glasgow was hailed as the saviour of Glasgow's shipbuilding industry.

HMS Daring was launched in February 2006, HMS Dauntless in January 2007 and HMS Diamond in November 2007.

HMS Defender is due to be launched in 2009, with HMS Duncan coming in 2010.

Costing almost £6.4bn and weighing 7000 tons, they will be among the most sophisticated warships built in Britain and will secure work at yards on the Clyde well into the next decade.

In the coming months, work will also begin in the Clyde yards on two new aircraft carriers.

Alan Johnston, chief executive of BVT Surface Fleet, said the launch of Dragon was an opportunity to celebrate the progress that is being made on the Clyde.

"Only four days ago the second ship in the class, Dauntless, departed the Clyde on her maiden voyage," he said.

"Today we have seen her magnificent sister ship take to the water for the first time.

"Each of these milestones on the Type 45 contract is testament to the innovation, design and engineering skills of our employees and partners, and proof of our commitment to building the next generation of warships for the Royal Navy."

The fleet of six Type 45 anti-air warfare destroyers will provide the backbone of the Royal Navy's air defences for much of the first half of the 21st century. Features include anti-aircraft weaponry and stealth technology.

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