The present study explores the modification and control of prebuckling stiffness of cylindrical shells for their potential use in smart structures. The effects of surface-bonded microfiber composite actuator patches on cylindrical shells subjected to axial compression are studied experimentally. The actuators are placed such that the distance separating them is less than the observed axial and circumferential buckling wavelengths. Strain gauge sensors are used to measure the axial strains at discrete locations on the cylindrical shell. Experimental results indicate that the actuation effect can reduce the local strains as well as improve the overall stiffness of the structure. The results obtained in this study potentially have a significant impact in space applications. © 2017 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.