The move, part of a push to convince Americans to support Obama's plans to curb climate change, has long been urged by Arctic advocates as climate change opens up the region to more shipping, mining and oil drilling.
Earlier in the day, Obama stared down the melting Exit Glacier, a 2-mile-long chock of solid ice has been retreating at a faster and faster pace in recent years, in a dramatic use of his presidential pulpit to sound the alarm on climate change.
"This is as good of a signpost of what we're dealing with when it comes to climate change as just about anything," Obama said with the iconic glacier at his back.
In the first step of Obama's new timetable, the government would buy a heavy icebreaker by 2020 instead of the previous goal of 2022.
The United States used to have seven icebreakers. Russia currently has 40, with another 11 planned or under construction.
"Technically, we have three. Operationally, we really have only two," Obama told reporters in the coastal town of Seward, named after Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Obama will have to convince Congress to pick up the tab for any new icebreakers, each of which comes with a price tag of about $1 billion.
It usually takes up to 10 years to build an icebreaker. It was not immediately clear when any proposed new vessel might be ready.
The Coast Guard has previously recommended it needs eight icebreakers, although no administration budget has yet included the huge funding request. Coast Guard officials have said other agencies will have to chip in to help finance the purchase of new icebreakers.
"The devil, as always, will be in the funding and procurement details," said Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has studied the need for more Arctic icebreakers.
The Arctic region also needs enhanced navigation aids, satellite communications, deep-water ports and other related investments not mentioned in the White House announcement, Conley noted.
At a time of dwindling big-ticket weapons programs, Obama’s announcement lays the groundwork for the U.S. Coast Guard to launch a competition to build a new icebreaker.
"Great powers should have the capabilities for playing a role in the theater," said Malte Humpert, the head of the Arctic Institute, a think tank. "Russia is ready for anything that happens in the Arctic, and China is getting ready to have those capabilities."
As the Arctic opens tourism and oil drilling, the United States risks not having enough capacity to carry out search and rescue, and oil spill response missions unless it adds to its fleet of icebreakers.
Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., which built the newest U.S. icebreaker and delivered it in 1999, said it was keen to bid on new, hardened ships for the Coast Guard.
General Dynamics Corp., the other large U.S. military shipbuilder, said it was very interested in the icebreaker project, and touted its expertise in manufacturing heavy- and medium-weight steel commercial ships.
The company that built the other existing U.S. icebreakers, Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Co., shut down its shipyard in 1988.